Many people in Washington are angry at the Trump administration’s coddling of Saudi Arabia. They’re angry at Donald Trump’s efforts to exonerate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Outrage is spreading to America’s participation in Riyadh’s war in Yemen, where a Saudi blockade on the country’s main port has left 8 million at risk of starvation. Good. Given that the U.S. military is providing arms, intelligence, and fuel for a Saudi bombing campaign the United Nations calls a “war crime,” the indignation is overdue.
But it’s too limited. The Trump administration’s support for Saudi barbarism is a symptom. The disease is its enthusiasm for a new cold war in the Middle East.
When it comes to the Middle East, Trump and his foreign-policy advisers have a simple analysis: Iran is the problem and Saudi Arabia is part of the answer. The Iranians are revolutionaries; the Saudis are moderates. Iran promotes chaos; Saudi Arabia promotes stability. Iran sponsors terrorism; Saudi Arabia helps combat it. Iran, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is an “outlaw regime.” By contrast, Saudi Arabia, Trump says, “share[s]” America’s “aim of stamping out extremism.”
This is nonsense. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both despotisms. (Freedom House rates regimes on a scale of one to 100, with 100 being the freest. In 2018, Tehran garnered an 18; Riyadh a seven.) Both destabilize governments they oppose and buttress those they support. In Yemen, Tehran is backing the rebels; in Syria, Riyadh is. Both support terrorism when it suits their aims. Iran is more deeply implicated in terrorism against Israel. Saudi Arabia is more deeply implicated in terrorism against the United States.
America should be trying to ease the Iranian-Saudi cold war, which has fueled the hideous proxy wars that have devastated Syria and Yemen. Instead, Trump is inflaming it.
Trump’s eagerness for a cold war with Iran underlies his refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder. When justifying his refusal to condemn Riyadh, Trump often cites Saudi purchases of U.S. arms. But that’s at least partly a smoke screen. The bigger reason is that without Saudi Arabia, America can’t get tough on Iran. As David Sanger reported last week in The New York Times, “Trump administration officials and outside experts said that possible repercussions on an elaborate plan to squeeze the Iranians have dominated internal discussions about the fallout over what happened to Mr. Khashoggi. By comparison, they said, the issue of limiting American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which Mr. Trump has said would threaten American jobs, pales in importance.”
As part of Trump’s “plan to squeeze the Iranians,” Pompeo has vowed to try to push “global imports of Iranian crude oil as close to zero” as possible. Doing that without boosting global oil prices requires ensuring that the Saudis keep production high. So in order to destroy Iran’s economy, the Trump administration must stay on Riyadh’s good side, even if it means helping the royal family wage a war that’s killing Yemeni children or lie about murdering Saudi journalists. That’s a cost of America’s enthusiasm for cold war.
But it’s only part of the cost. America’s cold-war posture is also terrible for the people of Iran. According to a 2016 study in the journal Global Health, American sanctions—which have prevented Iran from importing prescription drugs or the raw materials to make them—have left 6 million Iranians “without access to essential treatment.” The architect of those sanctions is Barack Obama, who from 2010 to 2012, in coordination with America’s European allies, made it almost impossible for Iranian companies to import from or export to the West or transfer money through Western banks. Obama, however, saw those sanctions as a short-term gambit to convince Tehran to sign a nuclear deal. Once the deal was signed, he began lifting them.
Trump, by contrast, is set to reimpose sanctions next month. And since he has no remotely feasible strategy for negotiating a new nuclear agreement to replace the one he’s abandoned, those sanctions will likely stay in place for the foreseeable future. They will bring misery and death to ordinary Iranians. They will also likely weaken Iranian’s democratic opposition. Research by the University of Memphis’s Dursun Peksen shows that sanctioned regimes usually grow less democratic and more brutal. As resources grow scarcer, authoritarian governments dole them out to their supporters and deny them to their opponents. Professionals—who are crucial to replacing tyranny with liberal democracy—emigrate. Sanctions-busting breeds criminal networks, which—as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—can become fearsome and enduring political forces. All of which helps explain why Iranian dissidents, the very people Trump is supposedly championing, overwhelmingly oppose the sanctions he is set to reinstate.
This is the grim symmetry of Trump’s cold-war strategy. His coddling of Riyadh is terrible for those Saudis, like Khashoggi, who want liberal democracy. And his economic warfare against Tehran is terrible for their counterparts who want liberal democracy in Iran.
Trump’s new cold war in the Middle East evokes the ugliest periods of America’s cold war against the Soviet Union. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the United States repeatedly exaggerated the threat posed by Communist movements and regimes in the developing world and invented moral distinctions between America’s tyrannical adversaries and America’s tyrannical allies that didn’t actually exist. Fortified by these delusions, cold-war presidents helped pro-American autocrats oppress their own people while devastating those living under anti-American regimes the U.S. opposed. In the name of anti-communism, Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration backed Indonesian General Suharto as he massacred a half million people and dropped 7.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. Around the village of El Mozote, Salvadorans are still exhuming the bodies of civilians murdered by El Salvador’s right-wing military in the early 1980s, a crime the Reagan administration tried to cover up while it simultaneously mined harbors in left-wing Nicaragua.
Trump is reviving these inglorious traditions today. His critics should not be content with protesting his cover-up of Khashoggi’s murder. They should not even be content with ending America’s complicity in the war in Yemen. The root of the problem is the Trump administration’s effort to escalate confrontation in a part of the world that desperately needs less of it. If Democrats gain power in Congress this fall, that’s the target at which they must take aim.