Will Trump End U.S. Support for the Saudi-Led War upon Yemen?
Despite the distancing, Trump still supports the KSA insists Stephen Bell
Following President Trump’s inauguration, many questions are posed about the future direction of US foreign policy. During the election campaign, when questioned on the Middle East, Trump reiterated his opposition to, the Iraq war; US intervention against Assad rather than ISIS; and to the use of US ground troops where local states ought to intervene. Perhaps such shifts will lead him to withdraw support for the Saudi-led war upon Yemen?
In an extended interview with the New York Times in March of last year, Trump stated that “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First’”. Intervention is then not ruled out, but measured first by internal US criteria. Trump’s big theme has been the US’s international commitments and alliances have been funded by the American people, now they must be funded by the states that benefit from US power. Continuity in policy is possible, but only if US indebtedness is reduced.
This appears clear enough at first. NATO is characterised by Trump as “obsolete” in the war upon terror, but also disproportionately dependent upon US funding. The war on terror will continue by other means. Trump even suggests that “probably a new institution” is needed.
Yet it is difficult to be certain. Throughout his campaign Trump made a point of distinction that US policy should be characterised by “unpredictability”. He objected to actions being announced beforehand, such as withdrawal from Iraq, or the current assault upon Mosul. He believes that concealing US intervention is an essential part of US tactics. We can then assume that much of what is to come will not be CC’d in advance. Or as he put it in an ABC news interview on 25th January 2017, “I wanna let the action take place before the talk takes place”.
In that interview he further said, “We have spent right now $6 trillion in the Middle East. And our country is falling apart … It’s been our longest war. We’ve been in there for 15,16 years. Nobody even knows what the date is because they don’t really know when we did start. But it’s time. It’s time”. This would seem to strongly suggest opposition to substantially committing new ground forces, or commencing any new war.
But it is necessary to be guarded. In his election campaign, and in the ABC news interview, he reiterated his support for “safe zones in Syria”, whilst refusing to elaborate on the military procedure to secure these. And his major concern before and after the election has been Iran. He has characterised the Iranian nuclear deal as “one of the most incompetent deals of any kind I’ve ever seen”. He has spoken frequently about the supposedly malign rise of Iranian influence, in the ABC interview he said “Iran is taking over Iraq”. He has signalled his intention to undo the nuclear deal – something with huge international repercussions as amongst the signatories are the UN, EU, China and Russia. He apparently shares the Israeli government view of the permanent nature of the threat Iran poses.
On the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), he has focused on their vulnerability, and their wealth. In the NYT interview, he said “If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection I don’t think it would be around”. In an article published in “The Hill”, 16th August 2015, he focused on the need to pay to play – “They make a billion dollars a day. If it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t exist. They should pay us”.
This has gone so far as suggesting that the US will not purchase Saudi oil, if they do not provide troops to fight ISIS. This may not be viable as KSA still accounts for 13% of US oil imports. Equally, any sanctions taken against the KSA runs up against the weight of Saudi involvement in the US economy. After China and Japan, Saudi Arabia is probably the third largest investor in US Treasury securities. Estimates of Saudi investment in securities and assets are $750 billion. But it does tie in to a growing tension in US/KSA relations.
One of the most striking expressions of this was the passage of the Bill, in September 2016, against President Obama’s opposition, supported by Democrats and Republicans, to allow victims and relatives of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government. This unease has spread widely in the US. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll in December 2016 revealed that of those who voted for Clinton, 36% regard the KSA as “friendly or an ally”, as against 38% who regard it as “unfriendly or an enemy”. Amongst those who voted for Trump, 25% regarded it as “friendly or an ally”, as against 59% who regard it as “unfriendly or an enemy”.
Even Obama, despite supporting the Saudi war upon Yemen, made a couple of shifts. Firstly, in the summer of 2016, he withdrew nearly all of the US military personnel in the Saudi operational command centre in Riyadh. Secondly, in December 2016, he blocked some arms sales to the KSA. Of course, these fell well short of ending support. But it did register that the US government was losing patience with the Saudis, given their obvious failure to make any strategic military progress in the war. It represented US pressure upon the Saudis to find a different political, rather than military, solution.
If President Trump wishes to end the war he has a simple expedient at hand. He can end US refuelling of the Saudi-led coalition planes. According to former Pentagon official, Pierre Sprey, this action would mean that planes would be confined to flying 5 to 15 minutes runs, instead of the current 1 to 3 hour runs. Obviously this would drastically reduce the scope of coalition bombing.
It seems unlikely Trump will do this. Despite the distancing, Trump still supports the KSA. In a Fox News interview, 4th January 2016, he said “…Iran, they’re looking to go into Saudi Arabia. They want the oil. They took over Yemen. I would want to protect Saudi Arabia”.
As Iran appears to be one of Trump’s main concerns in the Middle East he will want a settlement in Yemen which the Saudis can support. Two actions this week reinforce this. On January 22nd, the US carried out drone strikes inside Bayda province, Yemen. On the day after, the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency announced arms sales to the KSA worth $525 million. Obviously the President could have stopped these, had he wished to. This being the case, it falls upon the anti-war movement, particularly in the US and Britain, to step up its opposition to their government’s involvement in the war upon the people of Yemen.