How Trump and MBS helped get that giant Saudi oil plant blown up

Sep 21 2019

Washington spent the first part of this week trying to figure out who blew up some Saudi oil facilities. Was it Houthi rebels in Yemen, who proudly claimed responsibility? Or was it Iran? Or was it both—an attack conceived and orchestrated by Iran but executed by Iran’s Houthi allies?

There’s an important and underappreciated sense in which the answer doesn’t matter. The moral of the story is the same regardless of how the blame is distributed between Iran and the Houthis. Namely: If you don’t want people to blow stuff up, don’t attack them in the first place!

In the case of the Houthis, the attack has been a military campaign, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and logistically supported by the US, that has killed thousands of Houthis and other Yemenis (including the occasional schoolbus full of kids) and has created widespread shortages of food and water. The campaign has lasted more than four years and shows no signs of achieving its goals, even though Saudi strategic genius Mohammed Bin (“Bonesaw”) Salman, back when he launched the fiasco, sent Washington reassurances that it would take only six weeks for the Mission Accomplished banner to be unfurled. 

In short, this is the kind of attack that could induce a Houthi counterattack.

In the case of Iran, the attack has been a year-long program of sanctions—imposed by Trump with energetic Saudi encouragement—so draconian that calling it “economic strangulation” is no exaggeration. The ultimate aim seems to be regime change. 

Ruling regimes have been known to resist regime change. For example, an imperiled regime might decide to signal that if America’s going to shut down its oil exports, maybe exporting oil will become problematic for a nearby American ally as well! It might also signal that if America launches a military attack against it, the region could go up in flames. 

What’s so amazing that every once in a while I have to stop and process it anew is this: The campaign to strangle Iran’s economy consists largely of sanctions that had ended as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran—and they were reimposed last year by the US not because Iran violated or abandoned the deal but because the US abandoned the deal. It’s kind of like sending victims of crimes to jail instead of the criminals. (Except that in that case at least you’re not, for example, endangering the lives of the victims by depriving them of critical medicine. Plus, no oil facilities get blown up.)

In the young and still-evolving Nonzero Newsletter, the rubric in the colored bar above—NEWSWORTHY—will appear over some pieces that discuss the week’s news. Often these pieces will highlight a story, or a theme in a story, that, IMHO, got less play in mainstream media than it deserved. In other words, under the NEWSWORTHY rubric you’ll typically find something I consider newsworthier than it’s been given credit for, something that I think has been underplayed. 

I won’t always be explicit about what exactly it is that’s been underplayed. But in this inaugural version of the feature I might as well spell it out: I think there’s been too little exploration by at least some major media outlets of the likely motivations for the attack on Saudi Arabia, and thus too much implicit acceptance of the Trump administration’s narrative: that Iran is a deeply dangerous, destabilizing country that keeps doing crazy shit without intelligible motivation or discernible provocation. (There actually is a country that has lately been fitting that description, and unfortunately I’m living in it.)

One source of this media bias is a whole Washington infrastructure of think tanks and lobbyists (some of them funded by Saudi Arabia) whose job is to cast all Iranian behavior in the spookiest light possible. In a piece I wrote for The Intercept last year, I explored one example of how this infrastructure had warped some reporting in the New York Times, raising the chances of war with Iran.  

But the problem goes beyond the distorting influence of think tanks and lobbyists. It grows partly out of human nature—specifically, out of a cognitive bias known as attribution error. Once a country has been framed as an enemy, we’re naturally inclined to not see ways that its unwelcome behavior might be explained by the circumstances it faces. 

This is unfortunate, because successfully playing non-zero-sum games—playing them to win-win outcomes, or at least avoiding lose-lose outcomes—often requires clearly understanding the perspective of the other player. That is, it requires cognitive empathy (not to be confused with the feel-their-pain kind of empathy known as emotional empathy). And the game the US is playing with Iran definitely has non-zero-sum aspects, since, for example, neither player wants to see the Middle East to go up in flames. 

One thing this newsletter will try to do from time to time is enrich cognitive empathy by counteracting attribution error. I’m confident that American politicians and journalists will provide lots of opportunities for that.

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