Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Saudis are pissed because a country they have been bombing into smithereens for years shot a missile back

There are two kinds of foreign countries in the world: those that the U.S. can attack and expect to be attacked back, and those that the U.S. can attack with confidence that the target country will not attack back. Most of the world is in the second category, which is why American politicians and pundits openly demand that the U.S. attack various countries when those countries do stuff we don't like. A decade and a half ago, people across the U.S. debated whether the U.S. should invade Iraq with no thought to whether they, sitting in their houses in the States, would be in any danger of retaliation. In the 1990s, Clinton bombed Serbia and sent forces into Somalia and even critics of those operations never warned of a Serbian or Somalian retaliatory attack. Obama decided not to attack the Syrian government over its use of chemical weapons, but not because he thought such an attack would cause Assad's forces to bomb America back. Everyone knows there was no danger of that. Syria is on the bombable list, and its place on that list was reaffirmed when President Trump shot a bunch of cruise missiles into a Syrian military base and American military bases did not experience any retaliatory attack. The Syrians were expected to just take it. And they did. They did not have a choice.

That's the dilemma of North Korea in a nutshell. North Korea is a rare example of a country that is not in the elite first world club, but nevertheless is able to punch back against members of that club. It is not clear whether North Korea could hit the U.S. back, but both its ability to develop weaponry and geography mean that Pyongyang could hit back hard against South Korea and Japan, both members of the first world club and U.S. allies. The fact that it can hit back means that North Korea is treated differently from all the other non-first world countries that give the first world countries grief. If it were on the "can't hit back" list, the U.S. would have bombed North Korea long ago.

Because geography has a role in whether a country is able to hit back or not, the Americans' list of countries that can't hit it back is a little different from the list of other nations in its first world club. Yemen, for example, is on the U.S. list. Sure, AQAP or some other non-state actor, might try something to retaliate. But the Yemeni government, including the current de facto Houthi-run government really can't hit the U.S. back (and they didn't). But that is not the case for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis border Yemen. It doesn't take a lot of technical sophistication for Houthis to retaliate against the KSA.

Saudi Arabia has been bombing the hell out of Yemen for 2.5 years. They have killed hundreds if not thousands of Yemeni civilians, hitting hospitals and schools, not just military targets. Because of the Saudi war, Yemen has been hit with starvation and disease. So, the Houthis struck back. Frankly, the Saudis' outrage over this is absurd.

I wonder if their surprise and anger stems from a simple misclassification. The Saudis probably thought that Yemen was on the can't strike back list when actually they are on the other list of countries that can. Rather than revise their list, they are blaming Iran instead, which is another symptom of the Saudis conviction that Shiites have no agency unless they are Persian.

I guess a short version of this would be: what Hassan Rouhani said.