In the wake of an apparent drone attack targeting oilfields on the Arabian Peninsula, Congress should do everything it can to avoid getting America involved in a potential conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The attack on the Abqaiq oil facility appears to have been carried out with drones operated by Houthi rebels in Yemen. They targeted a refinery owned by Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil monopoly. The attack is likely to cut Saudi Arabian oil production in half, reducing global supply of crude oil by about 5 percent, The Wall Street Journal reported, raising the possibility of higher gasoline prices. It did not take long for Saudi and U.S. officials—including President Donald Trump—to pin blame for the Saturday night attack on Iran, which has provided support and aid to the Houthi rebels.
On Monday night, NBC News reported that the attack was launched from within Iran, citing three anonymous sources familiar with American intelligence reports.
The question, then, becomes what America should do next.
In a tweet on Sunday, Trump gave the impression that he was willing to let the Saudis decide how America would react.
That response raises obvious constitutional concerns. Even if Saudi Arabia and Iran were heading for a military confrontation, it's not immediately clear how that conflict would jeopardize American national security. If there is a reason for the U.S. to be involved in a regional war in the Middle East, the Trump administration should make that argument to Congress and proceed only after Congress has approved military action.
"The whole situation is more complicated than the war hawks in town would have you believe," says Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "It's simply not true that the Iranians call the tune and the Houthis dance. It's more complicated than that."
Indeed, the Houthi rebels have been fighting a Saudi-backed regime in Yemen for several years—a conflict that has turned into a brutal civil war that has killed an estimated 50,000 people; while at least 50,000 more are estimated to have died in a famine triggered by the conflict, though exact numbers of deaths are difficult to ascertain. Earlier this year, Trump vetoed a bill that would have ended American military involvement in the Yemeni civil war.
But in a follow-up tweet on Monday, Trump compared Iran's denial of involvement in the oil facility attacks to what the president called "a very big lie" regarding the downing of a U.S. drone earlier this year. At that time, Iran claimed the drone had entered its airspace, while the U.S. claimed it had not. Shortly afterward, Trump ordered a military strike against Iran before changing his mind at the very last second.
That moment aside, the Trump administration has seemed willing—and eager, at times—to start a war with Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pitched lawmakers on the idea that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF)—passed in the wake of 9/11 to permit the U.S. to attack Al Qaeda—allows the U.S. to attack Iran without further congressional approval. And just last week, senior State Department advisor Brian Hook wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing Iran "is effectively extending its borders, enlarging its sphere of influence, and launching lethal attacks against rivals" via the Houthis.
But if Trump is going to remind the American public about the lies that Iranian leaders have told, it seems only fair to also point out that Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has told a few lies himself. Salman, known by"MBS," apparently ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year—and then lied about the murder for weeks after it took place at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Trump sided with bin Salman during the controversy.
It's that sort of knee-jerk support for Saudi Arabia within American political ranks that makes a U.S. military response troublingly likely. To the extent that duplicitous Saudi behavior enters into the equation at all, it seems to be quickly pushed aside in favor of backing a long-time ally merely because it has been a long-time ally—in the way that Sen. Chris Coons (D–Conn.) did on Monday morning:
just two dudes hanging out, gassing up another american war in the middle east (maybe!) pic.twitter.com/EaDkwJk2Hf
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) September 16, 2019
Even if members of Congress are cheering for a war with Iran, Trump should have to put the matter before them for a formal vote. And lawmakers should be measured in their approach. If you think a single attack that took 5 percent of the world's oil supply offline temporarily is a problem, you should also consider what a full-fledged conflict among some of the world's biggest oil-producing countries would mean.
"At a minimum, we should want to know more information before doing anything. Don't jump to conclusions," Preble says he would advise members of Congress. "And then, even once you've established the facts, you want to make sure that whatever action you're being asked to take is likely to make the situation better."
American involvement in a Saudi-Iran war would do little to protect the national security or economic interests of Americans. Congress should do everything in its power to avoid it.