Axis of Trump: Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia Campaign for the President

Benjamin Netanyahu
Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar (Credit: Creative Commons)

After the Israeli government’s decision to bar Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel and Palestine, the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders rallied around the two congresswomen, and the Israeli government did not favor to its supporters in the party.

With a blatant show of support for President Trump’s strategy of racial polarization, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu not only signaled his government’s support for Trump in the 2020 election. He also served to unify an often-fractious Democratic party around a more anti-Israel message that resonates across the party’s left-center spectrum.

Israel’s early intervention in the 2020 campaign is not like the more subtle underhanded approaches that President Putin and his Russian agents used to help the Trump campaign in 2016. Netanyahu’s gambit isn’t the IRA troll factory exposed by Robert Mueller. In Israel’s case, the prime minister is troll factory.

The social media binary tends to divide Democrats into two hostile camps on the question of foreign interference in the 2020 election. Centrists and their cable TV spokesmen, see Russia state interference as the primary threat, while leftists deprecate Russia’s secret and extensive efforts to help Trump and complain that Saudi and Israeli interference is actually much greater.

The partisans of this war do their best to convince each other and the public that the differences in the party are apocalyptic: Rachel Maddow is “Russia conspiracy theorist.” No, Tulsi Gabbard is “a Russian agent.” In reality, there’s less of a contradiction than the rhetoric suggests.

It should now be clear that the Russian, Israeli and Saudi governments are all authoritarian regimes that are seeking to keep authoritarian Trump in power. All of these governments–and their intelligence services–intend to “interfere” in the United States 2020 presidential election, that is to say, they will take secret action in order to secure a second term for Trump.

The Pro-Trump Axis

Bibi Tweets

It is not “anti-semitic” to say that Netanyahu is scheming against American democracy. It is not a “hoax” to say Putin (and operatives like Yevgeny Prigozhin) want to hobble Democrats and help Trump. It is not a “conspiracy theory” to say the Saudis run influence operations in Washington. Rather, there is abundant evidence that the three pro-Trump powers will likely extend covert assistance to the man in the White House.

To be sure, Israeli, Russian, and Saudi interests diverge in some areas. Russia has no interest in the U.S-Saudi-Israeli campaign against Iran. When Trump claimed Iran shot down a U.S. drone in international air space, Russia sided with Tehran. Russia state media promotes Tulsi Gabbard. Israeli and Saudi media demonize her.

Putin Vacation
Russian President in Tuva, August 2018.

But the pro-Trump axis has enough commonalities that Democrat need not bicker about the details. Putin and Steve Bannon, apostle of Trumpism, are making common cause with the populist right in Europe. So is Netanyahu.

Their methods can be lethal. Two GRU officers were dispatched to assassinate turncoat agent Sergey Skripal; Saudi intelligence officers were involved in the liquidation of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. The Israelis assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists.

And they have infrastructure. Just as Israel has a burgeoning spy ware industry fostered by the Israeli intelligence services, so Russia’s GRU has created at least two hacking units to wage cyber war. Both act in their own national interests, against Trump’s opponents in the United States.

(See my piece, “Spooks for Hire: How Mossad Seeds the Private Intelligence Industry.”)

MBS
Mohammed bin Salman.

Israel’s banning of the congresswomen, like the indictment of the Russian troll factory, and the whitewashing of Khashoggi’s murder, exposes the intent of foreign powers to thwart American democracy.

Backlash

Thanks to Netanyahu, it has never been more respectable for Democrats to criticize Israel. From the corporate Obama-Clinton center to the progressive and bleeding-edge socialist left, Israel is now under fire. The disgrace of a president and a prime minister who prevented an American representative from visiting her 90 year old grandmother for the sake of racist political advantage is something that Democrats can agree on.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, geopolitician.

To be sure, the Israel lobby remains powerful in the party. Many Democrats in Congress are on record with doubts about the legitimacy and the viability of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement. But after Omar and Tlaib’s exclusion, the critical tone about Israel grew notably harsher this week.

The travel ban undermines Democrats who say the Israeli government policy isn’t racist. The only two U.S. representatives forbidden from visiting Israel/Palestine are women of color. How do the 41 Democratic representatives who have travelled to Israel explain that? They suddenly face the question: will they stand up to Israel racism?

Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, the party’s rhetoric is gravitating, once again, toward the formulation of a certain plainspoken Jewish guy from Vermont “Opposing Netanyahu’s policies is not ‘hating the Jewish people,” Bernie Sanders tweeted Thursday.

The Israel-friendly Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand denounced the Israel’s action as “dangerous.” Booker emphasized the danger of Trump’s racist rhetoric. Gillibrand called it “un-American.”

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg: The P Word

Pete Buttigieg used the p-word–Palestine–rarely heard in the party’s pro-Israel discourse in 2016. When Buttigieg went to Gaza in 2018, he repeated the talking points of the Israel lobby and the Israeli security forces. Now he speaks, like Sanders, of reconciling the interests of America, Israel, and Palestine..

The banning of Omar and Tlaib was “appalling,” said Julian Castro. “An affront to American values,” said Kamala Harris. Jay Inslee called it “state-sanctioned Islamophobia.” No one among the Democrats uttered the a-word-=-“apartheid.” But they’re saying American and Israeli values are distinct, which is new.

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris: ‘Affront’ (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the weakest tweets came from Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. They responded to Trump’s claim that Israel would be showing “weakness” by admitting the two congresswomen. The Minnesota Senator and former El Paso congressman countered that Trump is showing “weakness” by (in Gillibrand’s words) “exporting intolerance.” It’s more convoluted than convincing.

Joe Biden, who has a been getting a lot of grief for his gaffes, didn’t distinguish himself with the claim that Israel “shares our democratic values.” The banning of Omar and Tlaib was a very clear statement that the current Israeli government does not share the democratic values of the Democratic party in 2020.

That’s the issue, whether Biden likes it or not, and it’s not cutting Israel’s way. To the contrary, the Democratic party is more anti-Israel than it was a week ago, and the triple threat of Israeli-Russia-Saudi interference in 2020 is clearer than ever.

Trump’s Pressure On Iran May Spark Mideast Conflict

Israeli Air Force plane
Israeli Air Force plane
Israel’s U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets were reportedly used in an attack on Iraq earlier this month. (Credit: Youtube/CWW7News)

Israeli attacks in three Middle East countries are pushing a volatile region that is already the scene of two long-running wars, closer to a third. The lethal strikes show how the Trump administration has effectively outsourced the military component of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. As a result,  one U.S. ally–Israel–is attacking in another American ally—Iraq, supposedly for the sake of advancing American interests.

On Saturday, Israel confirmed that its warplanes struck an Iranian-operated base in Syria that was allegedly preparing to launch a major drone attack against Israel. On Sunday an armed drone struck a Hezbollah media center in the suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah said it was the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since Israel and Hezbollah fought to a draw in 2006. 

Later Sunday another drone strike in Iraq killed a commander of one of the Iranian-backed militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Israel did not confirm or deny the latter two attacks but most news sources assume Israel was responsible. Last week “senior U.S. officials” told the New York Times that Israel was behind three other unattributed attacks in Iraq.

Israel says that the PMFs constitute a threat to its security, by enabling Iran to move its short-range ballistic missiles closer to Israel. But Iraqis see the PMF, a coalition of some 60 militias, as necessary protection against ISIS. The PMF sprang up in 2014 when ISIS routed the Iraqi government forces and took over much of western Iraq. Supported by Iran and blessed by Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, the PMF fought alongside U.S. troops in driving ISIS out of western Iraq. Without the PMF, ISIS would probably still hold large swathes of the country.

Since 2017, the Iraqi government has been incorporating PMF personnel and weapons into its armed forces, with the goal of lessening the country’s dependence on Iran and gaining military units with battlefield experience. Faleh al Fayadh, the chairman of the PMF coalition, is Iraq’s national security advisor. The idea was to weave the two forces together. Now Israel hopes to divide them.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli attacks are being denounced in a country where the U.S. is far from popular.

Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered the U.S. military to ask permission before undertaking any flights in the country (U.S. commanders said they would comply “immediately.”)  Iraq’s country’s ceremonial president, called the attacks “a blatant hostile act” that crossed the red line of Iraqi sovereignty. A pro-Iranian bloc holding 10 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament called the attacks a “declaration of war.” 

Tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman, June 13.

But if Iraqis think the Israeli attacks are declaration of war on them, there’s no doubt who the Americans favor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that U.S. fully supports Israel’s “right to defend itself.”  Fifteen years after attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States supports a secret war on the government that replaced him. 

“The attacks in Iraq underscores the contradictions in US policy,” said Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst for the region. “Here we have the administration not only not criticizing but actually applauding Israel for an armed attack on the territory of a friendly state that we are trying to help in other ways.”

Pressuring Iraq to join the campaign of “maximum pressure,” Pillar said in a phone interview, “is totally contradictory to the prosperity and stability of Iraq. They are dependent on trade with Iran and they are dependent on the popular mobilization forces for security.  The attacks only increase Iraqi resentment of United States and increases Iraq’s sense of dependence on Iran to protect itself.”

The reason why Israel and the United States are so hostile to Iran, is that the Islamic Republic has taken advantage of U.S. blunders since 9/11 to consolidate its prestige and allies, while the U.S. and its allies have lost strength.

The U.S policymakers sought to replace Saddam Hussein’s government with an anti-Iranian regime in 2003. They failed. Iran cultivated good relations with the new government and gained power and influence in Baghdad where it once had none. 

In 2011 U.S. policymakers thought they could overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria by supporting Syrian “moderates” (of whom there were few) and al-Qaeda linked fundamentalists (of whom there were many). They failed. Iran supported Assad and (with Russian, Iranian and U.S. help) has mostly routed ISIS. Iran is now entrenched in Assad’s Syria as it never was before. 

In 2015 U.S. policymakers thought Saudi Arabia could defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and deal a blow to Iran, the Houthis’ ally. They thought wrong. The Saudi coalition has inflicted the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on Yemen, yet achieved none of its goals. Now the U.S. is seeking peace talks to end the war and the Houthis are openly embracing the Iranians. 

Now U.S. policymakers expect Iraqi government to ignore Israeli attacks and support the U.S. campaign against Iran, a larger neighboring country that supports its economy and security. With the U.S. track record in the region, there’s little reason to think this will succeed. What Trump Iran’s policy lacks in coherence, it makes up for with recklessness.

Of course, the incoherent Trump could change his mind. He ordered and called off an attack on Iran for shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone, a sign that he has no desire to be a wartime commander-in-chief going into an election year. At the G-7 summit, he played along with the gambit of French President Emmanuel Macron to open the door to talks with Iran. If the U.S. lifts sanctions, Iran is willing to talk, President Rouhani replied.

The Israelis are worried Trump might accept. Afterall, Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury, only to warm up to Kim Jong-il and embrace negotiations over the objections of his advisers. Israeli escalation in Iraq—and the expected response from Iran and Hezbollah—will make it harder for Trump to change directions on Iran, which is why the attacks are likely to continue. 

An Afghan Peace Problem: CIA-Funded Militias

CIA Seal

President Trump wants to pull out of Afghanistan. A majority of Congress wants to end the 19 year long war. Peace talks are underway. The women of Afghanistan are bracing for a loss of freedoms possible while under American occupation. An agreement between the United States and the Taliban is in sight.

But then there is “the disposal problem” encountered in the wake of large-scale CIA paramilitary operations: what do you do with the people you’ve been paying to wage war?

A new report from the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute argues that the agreement won’t lead to real peace unless it addresses the elephant in the room: the fate of regional Afghan militias paid and directed by the CIA. “Militias that operate outside the control of the central state and the chain of command of its armed forces will undermine the process of state formation and the prospects for a sustainable peace,” the report reads.

Alex Emmons of The Intercept reports.

CIA-backed militias goes back to 2001, when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA rapidly organized Afghan militias under its payroll to overthrow the Taliban. This allowed the CIA to send Al Qaeda’s fighters fleeing the country with a minimal U.S. footprint.

Initially, these local militias were viewed as a temporary solution, but they eventually became a permanent fixture of secret CIA operations in the country — sometimes acting without the knowledge of U.S. diplomats and Afghan military leaders.

Not much is publicly known about specific groups the CIA directs, the best known of which is the Khost Protection Force. The force has no basis in the Afghan Constitution or law and operates out of the CIA’s Camp Chapman in the province of Khost.

The CIA’s forces could pose a problem for the Afghan government after the peace talks.

“If cut loose by the CIA,” the report notes, “they may be reborn as private armies or ‘security guards’ in the service of powerful individuals, or operate autonomously to prey on civilians and commercial sources.”

U.S. Plans to Open Direct Talks With Iran-Backed Houthis in Yemen

It’s easy to talk tough but hard to win a war. So while the Trump administration continued to support the war in Yemen over bipartisan majority of Congress, now it seems to be looking a for a way out.

The Trump administration wants to open up negotiations with the Iranian-backed Houthis. This is a sign of a difference between Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who launched the war in 2015 expecting a quick victory. Four years and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis laster, Trump and Co. have had enough, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is looking to prod Saudi Arabia into taking part in secret talks in Oman with Houthi leaders in an effort to broker a cease-fire in Yemen, according to these people.The move could open the first significant channel between the Trump administration and the Houthis at a time when fears of a broader regional war are growing.

Source: U.S. Plans to Open Direct Talks With Iran-Backed Houthis in Yemen – WSJ

The Houthis have attacked Saudi Arabia with drones and rockets. In the event of a regional war between Iran and its two rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Houthis would be an ally of Iran . The adminstration’s belated call for negotiations is a sign that the Saudi war in Yemen has failed.

Secret Israeli Attacks in Iraq Are Part of Trump’s Anti-Iran Campaign

Israeli F-35
Israeli Flag
Israel is the chief U.S. ally in President Trump’s campaign against Iran. (Credit: Creative Commons)

President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, notes former CIA analyst Paul Pillar, is more obsession than strategy. A not-so-mysterious explosion on the outskirts of Baghdad Monday shows why.

Iraqi political analysts are blaming the attack on Israel, saying it follows two attacks earlier this month on facilities of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. According to an Israeli news report, Israel launched the two attacks with U.S.-made F-35 jets.

Israeli F-35
Israeli F-35

Israel has long attacked Iranian-backed forces in Syria, an enemy of the United States. Now Israel has expanded its scope of operations to attack targets in Iraq, whose coalition government is friendly to the United States. The predictable result: the Iraqi government is bailing on Trump’s policy.

The dynamic exposes two underappreciated realities of Trump’s Iran obsession: Any U.S. war on Iran will ignite war in Iraq, and U.S. credibility is visibly faltering across the region. When things go wrong, a strategy can be rethought. An obsession can only ignore the warning signs.

The U.S.-Saudi war in Yemen that was supposed to check Iran’s power is now in disarray. The bloody war that Trump continued, over the bipartisan congressional objections, has generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and it is farther than ever from success.

The U.S.-backed Yemen war is losing allies, even among the Persian Gulf states that fear Iran. First, the United Arab Emirates announced it is now bailing out of the Yemen war effort. Then, separatist Yemeni forces, backed by the UAE, took the southern port city of Aden from the Saudi-backed forces. Saudi Arabia is now fighting another war in Yemen that has nothing to do with Iran. It’s a maximum mess.

In Europe, no government has joined Trump’s anti-Iran crusade (though John Bolton is whispering in the ear of the new Trump-loving prime minister, Boris Johnson.) Last month Germany refused to join a U.S.-led naval mission to the Persian Gulf aimed at deterring Iranian attacks, saying everything should be done to avoid escalation sought by Washington.

When it comes to “maximum pressure,” the international reaction is: “include me out”—except in Israel, and therein lies the danger for the U.S. government and the American people. Israel has a vested interest in escalation, not de-escalation, with Iran.

Iran’s Backup Plan

Iran is growing stronger across the region and in Iraq in particular. Since last summer Iran has been delivering of short and medium range ballistic missiles to the PMUs. If fired from southern and western Iraq, these missiles could reach Riyadh and possibly Tel Aviv. They are Iran’s main deterrent to a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi attack and thus a threat to Israeli freedom of action in the region.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” an Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Since January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pressured the Iraqi government to order the dissolution of the Iranian-sponsored Popular Mobilization Units. The PMUs, as they are known, are the Shia militias that led a successful fight to drive ISIS out of western Iraq in 2017. They are Iraqi versions of Hezbollah combining Iranian-trained military forces with political fronts. (The bombings attributed to Israelis all targeted PMU facilities.)

The PMUs are controversial in Iraq. While hailed for their role in fighting ISIS, their subsequent expansion into domestic politics was not. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation’s religious leader, blessed the PMUs’ war on ISIS with a fatwa in 2014 but openly opposed their electoral list in 2018.

Nonetheless, the PMUs’ political alliance, known as Fateh, finished second in Iran’s 2018 parliamentary election and helped select Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. According to Iranian news reports, Pompeo made it clear in a January meeting with Abdul-Mahdi that Washington would not react to Israeli attacks against the PMUs.

As Iraq incorporates the PMUs—and there are more than 40 of them—into its armed forces, Iran is bolstering their independence. During the recent meeting in Tehran, a spokesman for one PMU, the Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement, said any government in Iraq that stands against Iran will be overthrown in a matter of weeks.

Rejecting Washington

That threat is overstated, but the influence of the PMUs is not. They helped save the country when ISIS erupted in 2014. They wield “significant political and military power,” according to the Jamestown Foundation, a security think tank that is hostile to Iran. Despite Pompeo’s pressure, their dissolution is “quite unlikely.”

Thanks to Trump’s policy, the incentives for Iraq to side with Iran are growing. No Iraqi government can afford to be seen making common cause with Israel. When Israel announced last week it would join a U.S. coalition to protect Persian Gulf maritime traffic, the pro-American government in Iraq spurned the idea. Iraq “rejects any participation of forces of the Zionist entity in any military force to secure passage of ships in the Arabian Gulf,” said Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim.

Iran drone wreckage
Wreckage of U.S. surveillance drone shot down by Iran.

“Iraq will work to lower tensions in our region through calm negotiations,” al-Hakim said, while “the presence of Western forces in the region would raise tensions.” As a result of Trump’s “maximum pressure,” Iraq had adopted the message of the U.S.-sanctioned Iranian diplomat Javad Zarif: the U.S. campaign against Iran is a menace, and “only regional nations can make regional peace.”

The U.S. alliance with Israel comes with a high political price that Trump appears willing to pay. The secret attacks may enhance Israeli security; they also serve to isolate Washington from its Iraqi allies. The attacks may degrade Iran militarily; they also bolster Iran’s standing politically. They may make Israelis nominally safer. They also make the remaining 5,200-plus U.S. troops in Iraq more vulnerable.

In short, the secret Israeli attacks increase the chances that any U.S.-Iran war will be fought in Iraq, where the U.S. intervention proved to be a disaster 15 years ago. And there’s no reason to think the Israeli attacks won’t continue.