Trump Team Debates Response to Strikes on Saudi Oil

54 2019-09-18

After a devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that jolted international markets and raised fears of a confrontation with Iran last weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing whether to get more deeply involved in yet another conflict thousands of miles from home.

All options are on the table, including sending additional U.S. forces to the region, according to U.S. officials who requested anonymity while discussing sensitive conversations, following a series of attacks that took half of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production offline over the weekend.

But although Trump initially promised on Twitter that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to hit back, the administration now appears to be taking a breath and stepping back to assess its options.

The internal deliberations are also revealing new divisions within Trump’s national security team, a week after the president unceremoniously fired his national security advisor, John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk. While the State Department is pushing a major force increase in the region, the Defense Department is urging caution, a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. Defense officials are mindful that such an increase would be costly and siphon military resources away from other combatant commands, the official said.

Speaking to the traveling press on Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the president has not yet requested military action, only planning. And Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, has not asked for additional forces in the region, Dunford noted.

“The president has made it clear he is not looking to go to war,” Dunford said, though he called the attack an “unacceptable act of aggression.” Dunford confirmed that the United States has a team on the ground at the Saudi oil field. A State Department official declined to comment.

Trump himself appears undecided about how to react. In a notable shift from his weekend tweet, the president on Monday stopped short of blaming Tehran outright for the attacks. If attributed to Iran, the attack would mark an escalation in its capability to wreak havoc hundreds of miles from the country’s borders. Asked whether he had evidence of Iranian involvement—though Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed direct responsibility—Trump said, “It’s looking that way.”

“That’s being checked out right now,” he told reporters, stressing that he would “like to avoid” a military conflict with Tehran.

Trump’s initial tweet aside, the muted U.S. response to the attacks reflects the tightrope the administration must walk as it seeks to fulfill one of the president’s key campaign promises: extricating the United States from costly wars in the Middle East. On the one hand, the Trump team wants to maintain its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it sees as a strong regional ally against Iran at a time when the administration is seeking to isolate Tehran. On the other, the president is keen to make good on his campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from the region ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.

In addition, many congressional critics—including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans—have long argued that Washington should pull back from what is seen as Riyadh’s reckless escalation of the Yemen war. And since the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi nearly a year ago, allegedly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump has come under severe criticism for his administration’s continued close alliance with the kingdom.

But Trump has continued to stand by his close relationship with Riyadh, and in saying the United States was “locked and loaded” added that he would defer to Saudi Arabia in how to respond: “[We 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!”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke with the Saudi crown prince and Iraqi Minister of Defense Najah al-Shammari about the attack over the weekend and huddled with Trump and other key national security advisors at the White House on Monday.

“The United States military, with our interagency team, is working with our partners to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran,” Esper wrote on Twitter on Monday.

By Tuesday, the proposal to deploy additional U.S. troops in the region remained highly vague. Defense analysts argued that no concrete reason had been articulated for deploying troops to Saudi Arabia beyond an attempt to allay frayed nerves in Riyadh.

An ill-defined deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia would do little to deter Iran from making additional moves against their rivals and would be unlikely to advance hard U.S. security interests, such as ensuring that shipping lanes remain open, argued James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Just putting forces in the region doesn’t really do anything,” he said.

In the absence of a concrete plan of action, Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech on Tuesday that the United States continues to deliberate over the next steps.

“We’re evaluating all the evidence. We’re consulting with our allies. And the president will determine the best course of action in the days ahead,” Pence said. “The United States of America will take whatever action is necessary to defend our country, our troops, and our allies in the Gulf.”

Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, echoed defense officials in urging a restrained response. Heinrichs said the United States “should resist being baited into a shooting war,” noting that “this is primarily a Saudi problem.”

“President Trump, the whole country really, doesn’t want to get involved in another Middle East conflict if we really don’t have to,” Heinrichs said. “This administration does not want to go to war with Iran.”

Heinrichs noted that the military is eager to shift focus from the Middle East and reorient toward competition with Russia and China, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis laid out in his 2018 National Defense Strategy. China’s malign activities in the Indo-Pacific and Russia’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe “deserve more of our focus,” she said.

But Jeffrey Martini, an analyst with the Rand Corp., said at some point the United States must acknowledge that deterrence is not working. If intelligence analysts can “credibly” show the missile strikes came from Iran, Washington will have to consider a kinetic strike.

“It would certainly show American resolve,” Martini said. “Our interests in the Middle East are clearly centered on energy security and freedom of navigation, so at some point I think we are due” to respond militarily.

In claiming responsibility for the strikes, the Houthi rebels in Yemen said operatives inside Saudi Arabia aided the attack. But experts express doubt that the Houthis could pull off a sophisticated and coordinated attack of this magnitude, which included cruise missile and drone strikes on multiple targets.

Trump said he planned to dispatch Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia but gave no details on the timing of the visit. David Schenker, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, recently returned from a visit to several countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Trump, Pompeo, and Esper met individually with Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, on Tuesday.

The attack devastated Saudi oil output, spiking oil prices, but the kingdom now appears likely to restore lost output more quickly than expected. Sources familiar with the recovery effort told Reuters Tuesday that Saudi officials hope to restore full production in a matter of weeks, rather than the monthslong timetable initially suggested.

Speaking at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman predicted oil output would be fully restored by the end of the month.

A quick return to full output may ease some of the pressure on Riyadh to strike back militarily against Iran.

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