Yes, Retain the U.S. Alliance with the Saudis—but Don’t Let Them Off Easy

Nov. 26 2018

Last week the president issued America’s official reaction to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Ankara. He made clear that this crime, awful as it was, is not sufficient reason to override the strategic reasons for the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Elliott Abrams admires the administration’s commitment to Realpolitik, but only up to a point:

The problem with this analysis [presented by the Trump administration] is not that it is wrong, but that it posits only two options: abandoning Saudi Arabia or embracing it. A tougher Realpolitik approach would promote a third option: use this moment to push the Saudis to do some things we think they need to do that would benefit both the kingdom and the United States. . . .

[I]f the Trump administration’s view is that we should not break with Saudi Arabia (a view I share), then the next step is not to embrace Saudi Arabia but rather [to] specify to the Saudis what they need to do so that they will not be seen as “a repressive throwback to a dark age of the past” [as Richard Nixon put it long ago to a Chinese leader, urging him be more attentive to human rights]. Send the Saudi foreign minister to fix things with Canada. Figure out a way to release the blogger Raif Badawi and the female Saudi protesters who appear to have been badly abused since their arrests. Reunite the Gulf Cooperation Council, [which has been riven by a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar]. . . .

The pure Realpolitik approach is not the one I favor, because I believe the moral element in U.S. foreign policy is critical to its success and to our international standing. But if the administration has decided on a realist approach, go all the way with it: demand a price in Saudi actions for the support we give.

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More about: Donald Trump, Human Rights, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela