Michael Morell is a former acting director of the CIA and a national security adviser to Hillary Clinton — one who is widely expected to occupy a senior post in her administration.
He is also an opponent of the Iran nuclear agreement, a defender of waterboarding, and an advocate for making Russia “pay a price” in Syria by covertly killing Putin’s soldiers.
On Tuesday, Morell added another title to that résumé: proponent of going to war with Iran, for the sake of securing Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen.
“Ships leave Iran on a regular basis carrying arms to the Houthis in Yemen,” Morell said, in remarks to the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank founded by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. “I would have no problem from a policy perspective of having the U.S. Navy boarding their ships, and if there are weapons on them, to turn those ships around.”
Morell did note, per Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, that this policy “raised questions of international maritime law.”
Which is a bit like saying, “Breaking into someone’s home, putting a gun in their face, and demanding they hand over all their weapons raises questions about armed-robbery law.”
Understatement aside, Morell’s stipulation suggests that he might be dissuaded from initiating a naval war with Iran if the legal issues prove too pesky. But the fact that a person who has Clinton’s ear on national security thinks this proposal makes sense from a “policy perspective” is alarming.
Forcibly boarding another nation’s naval or civilian vessels (outside one’s own territorial waters) and confiscating their weapons can reasonably be construed as an act of war, a point that would be unmistakable if the roles here were reversed.
How many Americans (whose paychecks aren’t directly or indirectly subsidized by Gulf State monarchies) think keeping Yemen within Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence is a cause worth entering another Middle Eastern war over?
How many would think so if they knew that the Saudis had recently bombed a Yemeni funeral hall, killing 140 people and leading the Obama administration to reconsider its support for the Saudi intervention? Or that some observers of the conflict contend that the Saudis are exaggerating Iran’s role, in order to justify the kingdom’s own expansionist ambitions?
Even if one accepts the Saudis’ preferred narrative — that Yemen’s Houthi rebels are tools of an Iranian regime hell-bent on spreading “Persian subversion” — it’s difficult to see how America has a pressing interest in keeping one of the world’s poorest countries aligned with Riyadh instead of Tehran.
By contrast, it’s easy to see how allowing the Saudis to bomb Yemeni funerals with American missiles could inspire blowback that does threaten our national security, and easier still to see how a hot conflict with Iran could take a toll on our nation’s blood and treasure.
Morell is just one of many advisers Clinton has consulted with over the course of her campaign. And as Josh Rogin has noted, there is a group of intervention skeptics among her inner circle, who hope to beat back the bipartisan call for both an escalation of American involvement in the Syrian civil war and a more “muscular” approach in our dealings with Iran.
Still, Morell’s perspective is in line with that of a new report on Middle East strategy released by the Center for American Progress and the thinking of Clinton’s top national-security aide Jake Sullivan, who recently declared, “We need to be raising the costs to Iran for its destabilizing behavior and we need to be raising the confidence of our Sunni partners.”
On Tuesday, Morell put this sentiment in terms both more concise and grandiose: “We’re back and we’re going to lead again.”
The best hope for those who don’t share Morell’s definition of leadership may be Clinton’s instinct for political caution. While intervention skeptics (or “Iran apologists,” as Eli Lake, whose passion I love, refers to them) are in the minority among elites, they’re quite likely in the majority among the voting public — a point not entirely lost on said foreign-policy mandarins.
“My concern is that we may be talking to each other and agreeing with each other,” Brian Katulis, a senior Middle East analyst at the Center for American Progress, recently told the Washington Post. “But that these discussions are isolated from where the public may be right now.”