Public Relations in the Trump era

Why policymakers should stop listening when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Israel
7 min read
06 Apr, 2018
Comment: Trump’s foreign policy has contributed to the emboldening of human rights abusers, writes Rose Worden.
President Trump reneges on the Iran Deal [Getty]
Whether you believe US foreign policy under Trump exemplifies an "emergent strategy model", in which the Trump administration is learning on its feet, or, as Occam's Razor would suggest, that luck has so far prevented catastrophe, one clear trend has emerged; US opposition to Iran has drawn Israel and Saudi Arabia deeper into one another's orbit, with US policymakers tending to invoke national security over humanitarian concerns in their approach to the region.

Relations within the trifecta have solidified through renewed cooperative military aid agreements and new weapons contracts. In recent months, representatives from each of the three countries have shifted focus to Iran when challenged on regional policy, and both Israel and Saudi Arabia have waged massive public relations campaigns in the US and elsewhere to influence public perception.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley halted discussion of Israel's human rights abuses in Gaza, which by then included
13 children shot by the Israeli military, stating that "Hamas terrorists" were backed by Iran - before walking out of the meeting as Palestinian representative Riyad Mansour began to speak.  

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently faced ridicule for delivering a misleading presentation in outmoded Powerpoint format on Iran's nuclear capacity, arguably in an attempt to appeal to President Trump, when he noted, using a phrase that would speak directly to Trump, "
Iran lied, big time".

No one can forget the extraordinary welcome given to Trump and his envoy when they visited Riyadh as part of the president's first overseas trip.

Since backing out of the Iran nuclear deal against the advice of analysts and the persuasion of European allies, the Trump administration has doubled down on its partnership with Saudi Arabia, presently the United States' largest customer of foreign military sales with more than
$114 billion in active deals. Human rights groups caution that these weapons are destined to further the kingdom's brutal campaign in Yemen which has already precipitated a humanitarian disaster. 

When Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman took control of Saudi Arabia around this time last year, media outlets including
The New York Times advanced the narrative of the new leader as a reformer. No one can forget the extraordinary welcome given to Trump and his envoy when they visited Riyadh as part of the president's first overseas trip.

Despite the transparency of such spectacles, for the past two years, US Senator from Connecticut Chris Murphy has found himself
a lone advocate in the Senate for rethinking US-Saudi relations in the context of the Yemen crisis. Murphy has cited the evidence of abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia as motivation for challenging the status quo.

In February, Murphy
invoked the bipartisan War Powers Resolution - along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) - to withdraw US Armed Forces from participating in the Saudi campaign, and reclaim that congressional authority had eroded since the bill first passed into law with a two-thirds majority in 1973.

The measure brought fresh debate to the Senate floor, but failed to pass, losing by a margin of 55-44. US presidents often
bypass Congress to order military directives anyway. 

The common argument that US precision capabilities could minimise casualties is depressingly undermined by accounts such as Saudi airstrikes targeting
mango farmers in Hodeida, where Riyadh has severely restricted access to a major port, preventing needed aid from entering Yemen. Saudi airstrikes have caused the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen, and by shelling water treatment facilities and other vital infrastructure created conditions for the virulent spread of Cholera. 

Among the ten Democrats who tabled the March 20 legislation calling for the US to remove forces assisting Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and
Chris Coons (D-DE) travelled to Israel and Saudi Arabia in 2016 on a "learning" trip to meet with leaders and discuss a range of issues including the status of Iran's nuclear programme. Both senators were original supporters of the Iran deal, and have stuck by the Trump administration in its uncritical support of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 


Delivering the keynote address at the Arms Trade Forum hosted by the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, on Tuesday May 22, Senator Murphy spoke of the challenge he has faced "trying to rewrite some of the history" [of the region] for his colleagues in the Senate - "a difficult proposition given our longstanding alliance" [with Saudi Arabia].

Michael Miller, acting deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Regional Security and Arms Transfers demurred when confronted about testimony from General Joseph Votel of US Central Command that CENTOM
does not track whether US fuel or munitions are ultimately used against civilian targets. "In terms of whether things are getting better or worse, I'm not best placed to assess that."

Murphy described US arms sales in the region as akin to "exporting our national gun violence epidemic across the world". The point was salient, as the National Rifle Association played a key role in lobbying against US participation in the Arms Trade Treaty, designed to regulate trade for the promotion of peace. Although the United States remains a signatory, the US Senate has never approved the treaty for ratification.

Murphy also expressed concern that incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo views the world similarly to his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, "through a military lens," and lamented that there could be a "rapid uptick in sales to GCC partners in the region at a time when the region needs no more arms".

It is significant that Murphy couched his appeals in the language of national security, arguing that more weapons flowing into the region could yield greater instability. This argument is often reversed as a reason the United States should engage in arms proliferation. In either case, national security arguments carry more weight than those based on humanitarian principles alone. 

"We have to do a better job [of] explaining that by staying in, we drive the Houthis closer to Iran and drive Yemenis closer to radicalism."
If we didn't cooperate with them, Israel probably wouldn't exist

Should conditions be placed on Israel? Murphy is making no efforts to imagine holding an ally, currently subject to
investigation for war crimes based on its military response to the Gaza protests, accountable for its human rights record - instead referring to "the important special relationship shared between the United States and Israel". 

Murphy dismissed the question: "If we didn't cooperate with them, Israel probably wouldn't exist."

The Israeli government has invested heavily in maintaining an image of a country struggling to maintain sovereignty while surrounded by enemies, despite Israel being an unrivalled military hegemon in the region for four decades. In the Trump era, Israel's public relations have grown particularly brazen. During the Nakba march, the Israeli military
spokesman claimed on Twitter, before later deleting the message, that "nothing was carried out uncontrolled and we know where every bullet landed".

Numerous US states have passed legislation designed to curb the Boycott Divest and Sanction movement in the country, and in May 2018, US lawmakers
reintroduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (ASAA) which seeks to redefine criticism of the Israeli government as being tantamount to anti-Semitism per the Department of Education, hampering pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses.  

Even as most UN member states have criticised the Trump administration for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the
United Kingdom has joined the United States in continuing to export weapons to Israel in record numbers.

As Senator Murphy put it, the conflict in Yemen amounts to a "proxy war the US doesn't have a fight in". 

Trump's foreign policy has contributed to the emboldening of human rights abusers. Public relations campaigns obscure facts, they don't fundamentally change them. United States lawmakers must see beyond the rhetoric and stop facilitating violence against civilians.



Rose Worden is a researcher and writer based in New York. She holds a Master's Degree in International Affairs from The New School and is focused on development and security in the Horn of Africa and MENA.

Follow her on Twitter @rswrdn

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.