Tensions are rising (again) in the Middle East. After pulling out of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to in the US as the Iran Nuclear Deal), the Trump administration has experienced an escalation in provocations by Tehran. The most recent (alleged) incident is the brazen attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery. It is but the latest occurrence in the centuries-old string of hostilities between Saudi Sunnis and Persian Shia.
In response, after fuming that America is “locked and loaded,” the President abruptly switched gears, claiming he didn’t want to go to war with anyone. Then, he shifted again, outlining US support for Saudi Arabia in one of the most unsettling statements of his Presidency. As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, Trump tweeted that the US is “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”
What exactly does this mean? Is the President declaring that the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the same regime that brutally dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi—is now calling the shots on US foreign policy?
Trump’s rationale? Saudi Arabia is a loyal ally (even though we have no formal treaty with the Saudis) that spends lots of money on US goods and services. As the President said, “They spend $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars. That’s a million and a half jobs. And they’re not ones that, unlike some countries, where they want terms; they want terms and conditions. They want to say, ‘Can we borrow the money at zero percent for the next 400 years?’ No. No. Saudi Arabia pays cash.”
Even if this (convoluted) statement was not an offensive—even dangerous—perspective for an American President to hold, Trump’s numbers are, as usual, wildly inaccurate. As Mark Sumner writes caustically in the Daily Kos: “Trump’s $400 billion figure on Tuesday comes after he repeatedly claimed that he had made a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman. That never happened. In 2018, Trump said that nonexistent arms deal meant ‘over 40,000 jobs in the United States.’ That, like the top line number, was backed up by no data at all. Now Trump has simply bumped the numbers to $400 billion and “a million and a half jobs.” Because sure, why not? He’s just making these numbers up after all. It’s not as if anyone is going to challenge him.”
And, according to Matthew Yglesias in Vox, there are only 1.5 million jobs in the entire aerospace and defense sectors.
So, as tensions continue to mount, we are again confronted with the idea of going to war on the basis of misguided priorities based on misleading and inaccurate data. What are we to think about the potential of upcoming war with Iran? President Trump’s position is so difficult to pin down that we can’t tell if we should root for his, “I don’t want to go to war with anyone” position or be terrorized by his “locked and loaded” comment.
And, no matter which Donald Trump shows up in the wartime deliberations between Washington and Tehran, we are left to wonder what role Riyadh will play in the decision. As we contemplate the loss of life, wasted financial resources and further harm to our international reputation (especially on the eve of the UN’s General Assembly) that would accompany a conflict with Iran, we must ask whether our actions are based upon the principles of justice, human rights, the search for the truth or even American interests. Or are we simply operating as a surrogate for a brutal dictatorship that pays for its bidding in hard cash?
Friends and colleagues, I wish to thank you for the many wonderful expressions of condolence that you shared at the recent passing of my mom. She was an amazing person and we had the best of lifelong relationships with, literally, no regrets. Saturday’s funeral service was filled with family and friends in celebration of her life. Your prayers and your comforting words were so very helpful in a week that was so unbelievably hard.