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We’re a Lot Closer to War in the Middle East Than You’ve Been Told

An attack on Saudi oil facilities threatens the global economy and practically dares the U.S. to retaliate. If that weren’t dangerous enough, Trump is president.

Christopher Dickey9.16.19 2:36 PM ET

Ever since Donald Trump became America’s commander in chief and started creating diplomatic crises around the world, the question has loomed: how will he react if he faces a violent challenge that appears to demand a military response? 

Well, that’s happening right now. The attacks on Saudi Arabia early Saturday morning, cutting its oil production in half, have us on the brink of a huge new Middle East conflict, a massive surge in oil prices, and a global recession. 

The administration is blaming Iran, and may well be right about that. It’s highly unlikely that Houthi rebels in Yemen, who claimed responsibility for lighting up the sky with Saudi Arabia’s most important petroleum processing plant, had the means on their own to carry out such an operation.

The Iranians of course deny involvement. But this is an act of war. It is fire and fury used against a close American ally—a close Trump ally! It seems to be begging for a real, not rhetorical, fire-and-fury response. But a full-on showdown with Tehran is a recipe for global economic disaster, which is why other provocations and smaller attacks were met with U.S. threats of proportional retaliation. But under the circumstances it’s damn hard to know what “proportional” would mean.

The mixed messages coming out of the White House suggested some serious hesitation and confusion. Uber-hawk John Bolton had just been fired as national security adviser. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jumped into the breach on Saturday to accuse Iran, without offering proof. Trump waited until late Sunday night to tweet that the U.S. is “locked and loaded”… but that he was waiting for the Saudis to tell him what to do.

Trump should worry. Very grim scenarios are on the near horizon even if much of the American public is not yet aware as most of the media focus obsessively on domestic political issues, and market analysts try to suppress a growing sense of panic. Reports that the Saudis have 200 million barrels of reserves stored here and there around the world are not particularly encouraging. If their facilities are knocked off-line for 40 days, those will be used up.

Oil prices shooting up to $100 a barrel or more won’t threaten U.S. oil supplies, thanks to fracking production that will become a lot more profitable at those prices, but the impact will be felt at the pump, and the slide toward global recession, already exacerbated by Trump’s trade wars, will accelerate.

Trump must feel this in his wretched gut. He could go into next year’s election fighting a war Americans don’t want with his boom economy going bust. And he has nobody to blame but himself.

For reasons ranging from vanity to venality, Trump has put faith in the wrong people again and again. At the top of that list is Jared Kushner’s buddy, the headstrong Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

The prince is good at posturing and intimidation, but not so great when it comes to the fundamental defense of his country. 

The Abqaiq oil facility that erupted in massive flames in the pre-dawn dark on Saturday is the biggest petroleum processing plant in the world. At least since the Reagan administration it has been recognized as hugely, dangerously vulnerable. And it’s just one target among many. As if to underscore that point, the attack also hit the country’s second biggest oil field. How is it possible that these installations were not better defended?

In 2002, former CIA operative Robert Baer sketched some of the doomsday scenarios the intelligence community was worried about then. “Saudi Arabia’s oil system is so target-rich,” he wrote in his book Sleeping With the Devil. “Any oil extraction, production and delivery system relies on a large, mostly exposed exoskeleton. Add to that the topography of Eastern Saudi Arabia, where the vast oil fields are located—an ocean of sand broken by shifting dunes, all of it sloping gently into the Persian Gulf—and you have a security consultant’s worst nightmare. Taking down Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure is like spearing fish in a barrel.”

That was 17 years ago. Of course many measures have been employed to protect all this, especially in the four years since MBS started his impetuous, incompetent and failed war to defeat the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. At least since 2016 the insurgents have been probing Saudi defenses with relatively primitive drones and missiles. They’ve hit airports and pipelines. They’ve shown video shot from a drone flying over one of the desalination plants that Saudi Arabia depends on for water. The U.S. meanwhile has provided Patriot anti-missile batteries. But clearly whatever was done was not nearly enough. 

In fact, the Saudis have always relied on the idea that the United States gave them direct deterrence against Iranian aggression. Look at how it reacted in 1990 when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait? The result was a huge international coalition that led to Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait’s oil, as well as its people.

This was always an ugly alliance, but the question of what to do about Iran made it a highly dangerous one.

Over the years, the Saudis have signed huge arms contracts with Britain and the United States to buy the loyal support of the governments supplying the hardware, not really with the idea they’d be using the stuff. They might like to dance with swords (and Trump once, weirdly, joined in) but their warrior traditions are something of the past, and no administration has had any illusions about their inclination to fight to the last mercenary or, indeed, the last American.

Trump must be wondering about that right now, and wondering hard. From the very beginning of his administration, he put much if not all his faith in MBS to be his problem-solver in the Middle East and his cash cow for projects further afield.

Trump’s first trip abroad was not to Canada, Mexico, or a NATO ally, but to Riyadh. MBS promised enormous arms purchases that would help give Americans jobs, and even suggested he could throw an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal into the bargain. In return for the arms deal, and quite explicitly, Trump did his best to ignore the butchering of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by a hit team made up of MBS security people, plus a doctor with a saw. 

So, this was always an ugly alliance, but the question of what to do about Iran made it a highly dangerous one. MBS, along with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, encouraged Trump to jettison the hard-won agreement forged under the Obama administration to limit Iran’s nuclear development program and postpone for years any chance it could develop the atomic weapons that, pro forma, it says it does not want.

Trump campaigned against the accord and decided to pull out of it last year rather than keeping it and building on it. The other signatories—Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China—warned this was a needless provocation. In fact, they blame Trump for creating the current crisis, and that is one reason they are conspicuously reluctant to support him now in his hour of need.

Fire and fury is upon us, and it’s not an exaggeration to say there’s going to be hell to pay.