Many observers have been mystified by the Saudi regime’s hold over President Donald Trump. For years he had criticized the gaggle of corrupt, dissolute royals. He also asked why Americans were paying to defend the wealthy, licentious al-Saud family, as it practiced totalitarianism at home and promoted Islamic fundamentalism abroad, including in America.
Yet Trump made his first trip as president to Saudi Arabia. Some observers wondered if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had salvaged his infamous orb from Mordor’s collapse eons ago and used it to take control of the president’s mind. No other explanation made sense.
Now the New York Times reports that the fault lies with Peter Navarro, the protectionist aide who spends much of his time urging economic and real war with China. He apparently was instrumental in convincing the president to put the profits of munition makers before the lives of Yemenis.
Consider the tragedy that had befallen Yemen, a deeply divided and tragically impoverished nation. During the Arab Spring the Yemeni people ousted the longtime president, leaving a weak and unpopular successor. The former chief executive joined a longtime rebel movement to overthrow the government. All par for the course in a divided land that has never known peace or stability.
But MbS, as the reckless, impulsive, dictatorial crown prince is known, wanted a toady in power next door. He also desired to demonstrate that he was the Big Man in the Middle East. So he and his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, created a faux coalition filled with the bought and conscripted and invaded Yemen. The conquest was supposed to be completed in a few weeks.
It soon became evident that the Saudi military is a vanity force, largely for show. Even with abundant American assistance, providing planes and munitions, training personnel, refueling planes, and giving intelligence to assist in targeting, Riyadh found itself stuck in what became an endless war, a quagmire that revealed the Saudi royals to be incompetent, unimaginative fools.
However, they proved to be efficient killers – of civilians. Reported the Times: "Year after year, the bombs fell – on wedding tents, funeral halls, fishing boats and a school bus, killing thousands of civilians and helping turn Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Weapons supplied by American companies, approved by American officials, allowed Saudi Arabia to pursue the reckless campaign."
Notably, President Barack Obama and the supposedly liberal interventionists who surrounded him, who insisted that something must be done to stop the killing in Syria, didn’t care and didn’t act. Nothing changed with President Trump; if anything, he seemed bewitched when he returned from his May 2017 trip. The slaughter continued.
However, added the Times: "in June 2017 an influential Republican senator decided to cut [weapons sales] off, by withholding approval for new sales. It was a moment that might have stopped the slaughter." Alas, "not under President Trump."
The moral equities are clear if complex. The Yemenis, in this case the onetime insurgent, now ruling, faction, dominated by the Houthi movement, is no friend of humanity or liberty. The insurgents met plenty of internal opposition; Yemen never has really enjoyed internal peace. The Houthis also fell out with their ally-of-convenience, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – who also lacked a conscience and scruples – and killed him in a shoot-out as he sought to flee Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.
However, the Saudis are worse – a ruthless, totalitarian regime that has grown more repressive under MbS, the internationally acclaimed social reformer. His approach was exemplified by murdering and then slicing and dicing Jamal Khashoggi, the critical Saudi journalist living in the U.S., in the regime’s consulate in Istanbul. Riyadh has promoted intolerant Wahhabism the world over, invaded its neighbor, kidnapped the Lebanese premier, supported jihadist insurgents in Syria, underwritten the tyrannical Sunni monarchy in Bahrain as it oppresses a Shia majority, and intervened in Libya’s civil war. Amazingly, Freedom House gives the kingdom a lower liberty rating than Yemen, which is engulfed in war.
Moreover, consider what the Saudi-Emirati "coalition," which included brutal Sudanese militias and more, has wrought. The Yemenis, meaning Houthis, are brutal, shelling indiscriminately, for instance. However, the bulk of the casualties and damage are caused by air attacks. And only one side has an air force.
The country, never prosperous, stable, or united, has been devastated. The needs of Yemen’s roughly 30 million people are staggering: eight of ten require outside aid, two of three lack adequate food and water. Cholera and now COVID-19 ravage the land. Human Rights Watch painted a grim picture: "civilians suffer from a lack of basic services, a spiraling economic crisis, abusive local security forces, and broken governance, health, education, and judicial systems." No one knows how many have died, but best estimates are 20,000 civilians in the conflict and another 130,000 from the war’s impact. The harm is overwhelmingly caused by the Saudis, Emiratis, and their allies, including America.
Tipping the moral scale decisively is the fact that the Saudis and Emiratis had no moral cause to intervene. The Houthis did nothing against Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, other than toss out the ruler they believed would be most pliable. The attack on Yemen was wanton aggression for the most selfish reasons. Obviously, these regimes are not the only governments to make war based on abstract geopolitical calculation – US policymakers should look in the mirror before being too critical. But Washington could help atone for its past crimes by not helping brutal aggressors do the same today.
And Yemen has nothing to do with US security. The land, which began as and may return to two states, has spent years suffering through war, outside intervention, civil war, internal unrest, terrorism, political discontent, and more. Washington’s only serious interest is terrorism, and the Houthis hate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula more than the US government. In contrast, the ousted government and the Emiratis have cooperated with and subsidized AQAP and other radical forces, even providing the latter with U.S.-provided weapons. MbS and MbZ have freely sacrificed serious American interests to advance their own.
In this circumstance one might expect Washington to bomb Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Instead, US officials embraced the aggressors. Apparently Obama saw US support as necessary to pacify the al-Saud clan, given the royals’ opposition to his nuclear negotiations and agreement with Iran. Yet Riyadh was the supplicant in the relationship, desperate for American protection. Why did Obama reassure a regime that should have been prodded to adopt real and painful political reforms?
Having abandoned the nuclear deal and otherwise spent most of his presidency genuflecting towards Riyadh – until he was worried about the collapse of the domestic shale oil industry – Trump obviously had a different reason for backing Saudi aggression. Rather, his administration tends to cite Iran’s support for Yemen. When the Times asked for the administration’s justification, National Security spokesman John Ullyot simply lied, blaming "Iran and its Houthi proxies," saying that "We remain committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s right to defend against those threats," threats Riyad was responsible for creating. The dishonesty in Ullyot’s response is astounding even for the Trump administration.
Tehran’s intervention is a consequence, not cause, of the conflict. Regional specialists long have affirmed that the Houthis, a different variety of Shiite, are not puppets of Tehran. It was Saudi Arabia, which long meddled in Yemeni affairs, that made the conflict sectarian. Riyadh’s victims had to look somewhere for aid, and the foolish war gave Iran an opportunity to bleed the royals, costing MbS money and reputation, rather like the US did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And given Riyadh’s criminality, it is difficult not to cheer the Houthis on, despite their own faults.
The only sensible US position was to stay out. Some Saudi flacks claimed that American backing for MbS gave Washington influence to moderate Saudi behavior. That is an argument astounding for its perversity. Is the Pentagon taking credit for Riyadh’s sustained assault on civilian targets and slaughter of innocents? Where is this supposed moderation? The best way to limit Saudi behavior is to make the regime bear the full cost of the war. Easing the kingdom’s burden encourages it to continue killing Yemenis.
It would be bad enough for Washington to become an accomplice to murder in order to advance genuine security interests. Sometimes tough decisions must be made: could America have remained aloof in the history-altering war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union? However, nothing required the US to make such a pact with the devil in Yemen. MbS should have born the entire cost of his war – without additional American weapons, munitions, and other support.
Why did that not happen with the new president, who had previously criticized the Saudi royals for relying on Washington? Ask Peter Navarro..
When US arms sales to Riyadh appeared in doubt, he swung into action. Reported the Times, Navarro "made it his mission to reverse the senator. Mr. Navarro, after consulting with American arms makers, wrote a memo to Jared Kushner and other top White House officials calling for an intervention, possibly by Mr. Trump himself. He titled it ‘Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.’ Within weeks, the Saudis were once again free to buy America weapons."
No doubt, the president was susceptible to such a pitch. When MbS visited the US in March 2018, there was an excruciating scene in the Oval Office as Trump, in theory the most powerful man on earth, waved a bit of cardboard filled with numbers labeled sales revenue and jobs as the crown prince sat nearby, his face reflecting a mix of satisfaction and contempt. All that money in the hands of defense manufacturers would put Americans back to work, the president promised.
Alas, he was fooling himself. The administration double-counted sales and assumed purchases never made. Moreover, Riyadh has proved remarkably bad about settling its bills, rather like businessman Donald Trump. The Saudis were notoriously slow in paying for the jet fuel Washington was pouring into aircraft bound for Yemen’s killing grounds. It turns out that the economic benefits for America of equipping the killers in Riyadh were small.
However, this was a bad argument even if the figures were true. Jobs are important. But jobs are not most important. In this case, empowering an evil regime determined to inflict murder and mayhem on helpless people is worse, much worse. Indeed, the administration insists that a greater national and even global interest requires sacrificing a multitude of jobs as a result of sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Russia. The moral imperative surely is no less in Yemen, the victim of blatant aggression, a conflict notable for manifold war crimes, an invasion with no legitimate objective.
Let there be no doubt. Navarro’s advice was deadly. Not to Americans. But to a far more vulnerable people half the world away. Observed the Times: "Trump’s embrace of arms sales has helped prolong a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people in the Arab world’s poorest nation, further destabilizing an already volatile region."
Ironically, the administration may find that it has sold thousands of foreign lives for less than he expected. The collapse of oil prices has had several beneficial impacts, most notably shrinking monarchy’s revenues, wrecking MbS’s grand investment plans, forcing reliance on the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and making the Yemeni war an even poorer investment. Soon there might not be a lot of money left over for more bombs.
In fact, the regime’s desperation is showing: Riyadh recently promulgated a unilateral ceasefire and begged the Houthis to negotiate. They responded by insisting on major Saudi concessions, such as abundant aid to rebuild. Eventually MbS might have no choice but to simply withdraw Saudi forces, leaving Yemenis to work out their own tragic fate. If so, America’s military-industrial complex would share the fate of the rest of the country, no longer able to increase profits by the number of foreigners killed with its wares.
The president’s decision to let Saudi Arabia drive America’s Mideast policy has had disastrous effects. The administration sent US personnel to the kingdom, allowing the royals to treat American soldiers as mercenaries, hired to guard the monarchy just as the royals buy people to perform every other tough or dirty job. Worse, the president, following Navarro’s advice, put greater value on a few jobs in America than tens of thousands of lives in Yemen. This moral travesty will be one of the administration’s worst legacies.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.