The heat and smoke aren’t just coming from Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, still-unconfirmed attacks from a still-unconfirmed assailant caused spectacular fires at two of the country’s most important oil installations, which are now offline.
That’s what we know. What we don’t know more than 24 hours later: Were the attacks carried out by drones, as initially claimed, or by missiles, as some experts now suggest? Did they come from territory controlled by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, to the south, or from Iraq or Iran to the northwest? Were the attacks carried out by the Houthis, who claimed responsibility for them, or by someone else on the Houthis’ behalf — or Iran’s? How badly were the Saudi facilities damaged, how quickly will they be back online, and will that add just a little to the global price of oil, or will it bring full-on panic into the markets?
Yes, we live in the most technologically advanced society humanity has ever known. The United States and Saudi Arabia have two of the world’s three largest military budgets. Yet it was possible to inflict major damage on the Saudis’ most important export with a device that researchers estimate may have cost less than a good used car. What’s more, it would appear — at least so far — that either Western and Saudi intelligence agencies can’t trace where the attacks originated, or can’t agree internally on what the facts mean.
This brings us to the Trump administration. President Trump quickly got on the phone to Riyadh to assure Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that he had America’s support. The statement issued by the White House was careful and diplomatic, neither naming a perpetrator nor promising any particular U.S. response:
The United States strongly condemns today’s attack on critical energy infrastructure. Violent actions against civilian areas and infrastructure vital to the global economy only deepen conflict and mistrust. The United States Government is monitoring the situation and remains committed to ensuring global oil markets are stable and well supplied.
But his Secretary of State struck an entirely different tone, pledging that “Iran will be held accountable for its aggression and tweeting:
Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.
This was rather astonishing since the world leader the Iranians are “pretend[ing] to engage in diplomacy” with is Pompeo’s boss, President Trump. As was widely noted in media coverage of Trump’s firing of National Security Adviser John Bolton last week, Pompeo is also known for his more hawkish views on Iran, but has exercised considerable skill in never getting crosswise of Trump in public or private. In the memorable words of a former ambassador who spoke off the record to New Yorker writer Susan Glasser, “he’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”
Pompeo seemed to get some support from an unexpected quarter this morning when House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said that the Houthis would have needed Iranian assistance to mount such an attack. The Democratic lawmaker also emphasized, however, that diplomacy with Iran was the only way out of the situation.
So, situation normal, the Trump administration doesn’t have a coherent position on a problem with enormous security and economic consequences. But the next time someone tells you that high-technology weaponry is making us all safer, and that sensors, networks, and intelligence make everything knowable and traceable, whether that something involves high finance or nuclear weaponry, remember this moment, when neither militaries nor markets have definitive information about what happened or how to react.
And keep an eye on Pompeo and the markets tomorrow, to see who is rising — and who is falling.