All we know for certain is that a fleet of drones struck and knocked out more than half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserts point-blank that Iran is responsible; Iran has denied involvement, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack. The Saudis say Iranian weapons were used and the strike did not originate from Yemen.
President Trump reminds us now of the problem with electing a raging narcissist and ignoramus to the presidency. He first slammed the press for repeating his administration’s statement that he’d meet with Iran without preconditions. That’s not a real credibility booster as we contemplate war.
Then, in B-movie lingo and with a bizarre inference that the Saudis will determine whether we go to war, Trump tweeted:
Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2019
The reaction was swift. As Ned Price, a former National Security Council official, put it, “We shouldn’t be surprised at Trump’s acknowledgment that the Saudis dictate our options. Even if he’s never been so forward about it, he’s long ceded our foreign policy to Riyadh.”
The administration is now contemplating military action, a step which could escalate already high tensions and set off a much more extensive Middle East war.
In ordinary circumstances, a decision of such magnitude (and without buy-in from allies) should have sign-off from Congress, as was done in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by an authorization for use of military force. No president can be entrusted to make such a consequential decision unilaterally. In this case, given that the president and secretary of state have repeatedly misled the American people — on everything from evidence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, to “progress” in North Korea talks, to Trump’s questioning of Russian meddling in our election — it is imperative that Congress hold hearings and make a decision for or against authorizing force.
It’s a sad state of affairs when you don’t know if a U.S. president or the Iranians are lying, but that’s what happens when the president already has lied 12,000-plus times. This should also underscore that we are in this mess because Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without a real game plan for what came next and then undercut his own credibility by threatening, and then stepping back from, a retaliatory strike on Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone in June. Iran, understandably, now thinks the United States is isolated and lacks the gumption to check Tehran’s escalating aggression in the region.
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted Sunday, “I hope the international community stands together to condemn this kind of behavior. We need to more fully understand who is responsible for these attacks and work with our allies and partners to support an appropriate response that prevents more attacks in the future.” Perhaps a more forceful assertion of congressional power is needed.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday, “I will look at the intel when I get back to DC this afternoon. But if Iran was involved, it is as unacceptable as it is predictable. Trump’s Iran strategy has been blind unilateral escalation. No off ramps. No international consensus building.” He also remarked that “no matter where this latest drone strike was launched from, there is no short or long term upside to the U.S. military getting more deeply involved in the growing regional contest between the Saudis and Iranians.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was more succinct: “The US should never go to war to protect Saudi oil."
We find ourselves in this untenable position because Trump’s lies have continued unabated, never checked by his own party, and because Congress has not had the fortitude to assert its constitutional prerogatives. We cannot do anything about the former (other than vote each and every Republican out in 2020), but Congress must end its reticence. We’re now talking about a possible Middle East war, more dangerous and more destructive than the ones already underway.