On Saturday morning, even as Saudi oil facilities blazed from an unprecedented drone attack, world markets braced for a huge surge in prices and the prospects of war with Iran loomed large on the smoke-filled horizon, the White House, weirdly, confirmed information leaked in July to the effect that Hamza bin Laden, son of the infamous killed-by-Obama Osama bin Laden, had been snuffed in a U.S. counterterror operation.
The statement did not come out as a Trumpian tweet, but as an official press release from the office of the White House press secretary. It didn’t say how the younger Bin Laden was killed. It didn’t say when. It didn’t say where, apart from “the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.”
Although it’s conceivable that it took until now for forensic scientists working on whatever was left of Hamza to confirm his DNA (they presumably have his father’s on file), the timing raises questions about the administration’s larger foreign policy, mainly whether the president’s tough guy credentials can actually coexist with an approach that’s been incoherent and, fundamentally, weak.
The headline of the week was Trump’s dismissal of John Bolton, his third ill-chosen national security adviser. Donald J. Trump said he made all the decisions anyway, so it should be an easy job to fill. But in an increasingly chaotic world where much of the chaos is of Trump’s own making, without a strong and knowledgeable adult at the national security council, he is going to find himself, as my daddy used to say, “up shit creek without a paddle.”
Can Secretary of State Mike Pompeo navigate through the Augean gloom? Probably not in a way that resolves the looming crises to the satisfaction of his narcissistic boss. A few examples:
CRIPPLED SAUDI OIL PRODUCTION
In the dark before dawn on Saturday, a group of Iran-backed Yemeni rebels claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s enormous Abqaiq oil facility, as well as a large oil field, hundreds of miles from what is considered rebel held territory. The Houthis, as the rebels are called, claim to have sent 10 drones on the attack, a veritable swarm.
Years ago, former CIA operative Robert Baer called Abqaiq “the Godzilla of oil-processing facilities” and warned that a moderate-to-severe attack would slow average production by about 5 million barrels a day, equal to about a quarter of the daily consumption in the ever-thirsty United States. As a result of the drone attack Saturday morning, Saudis have indeed cut their oil production by almost half—that is, by 5 million barrels a day. The threat will continue, and we can expect prices to soar.
Given the level of logistical and technological sophistication shown by the drone attack, will Iran be blamed? Of course. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did just that by calling it “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and asserting, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Okay. What will be the response? Will the Saudis dare to retaliate? Will the United States? Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, best known for the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is nothing if not impetuous. Will Trump back him up? ... And then what?
Trump may still “love” Kim Jong Un, and dismiss the North Korean tyrant’s several test launches of short range ballistic missiles, including those this week, as relatively unimportant. His reasoning: they couldn’t come close to hitting the continental United States like the ones tested in 2017. But a detailed report to the United Nations Security Council at the end of August made it perfectly clear that North Korea’s development of short range ballistic missiles is directly integrated with its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles perfectly able to hit any city in the U.S. The goal is to use solid rather than liquid fuel, making the missiles much easier to transport and to hide from American satellite surveillance (the capabilities of which America’s enemies know more about now, since Trump tweeted a classified satellite photograph earlier this month). All this as North Korea continues to build its arsenal of nuclear warheads.
(At the same time, the report to the Security Council said, North Korea continues on a cyber-criminal rampage, stealing huge amounts of money by hacking into accounts or through extortion. Example: the WannaCry ransomware that shut down computer systems all over the world in 2017 and only reopened them for a price paid in bitcoins which then were laundered thoroughly on their way to fill Kim’s coffers.)
THE TALIBAN AND PUTIN
Just a week ago, Trump suddenly scuttled a hard-won agreement with the Taliban that he had hoped would set up a reality show allowing him to declare on his electoral resume his own Trump-branded Camp David accords. The key elements of that deal were a ceasefire and a Taliban promise never to harbor terrorists intent on attacking the United States. But as Trump became aware of the agreement’s tone, which smacked of an American surrender, he instrumentalized the tragic death of an American soldier in a Taliban attack as a reason to back out.
With the agreement “dead,” as Trump put it, the Taliban are heading back to the battlefield. They can expect to target Americans whenever they get the chance. And they have told The Daily Beast that they may actually strengthen their ties with what has been of late a relatively low-profile Al Qaeda organization directed not by Hamza bin Laden, but by the venerable Ayman al-Zawahiri for whom the United States remains enemy number one.
Adding a further level of complication to the Afghan mess, aTaliban delegation went to Moscow this week to consult with the Russians. Perhaps they think Vladimir Putin can “mediate” in some fashion with the Americans. Trump, for his part, has long believed that his buddy in the Kremlin could help him solve difficult international problems.
Hey, thinking outside the box, maybe the Great Disruptor should name Putin as his new national security advisor. Or, you guessed it, maybe he already has.
Sami Yousafzai contributed reporting from Islamabad.