US ‘Imperial Anxieties’ Mount Over China-Brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Deal

Conor here: The China-brokered rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran has a chance to be epochal, and the following piece from Common Dreams is a roundup of reactions in the US.

The Cradle has a rundown on the security clauses of the deal, which if implemented, help demolish US policy in the region:

  • Both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran undertake not to engage in any activity that destabilizes either state, at the security, military or media levels.

  • Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund media outlets that seek to destabilize Iran, such as Iran International.

  • Saudi Arabia pledges not to fund organizations designated as terrorists by Iran, such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), Kurdish groups based in Iraq, or militants operating out of Pakistan.

  • Iran pledges to ensure that its allied organizations do not violate Saudi territory from inside Iraqi territory. During negotiations, there were discussions about the targeting of Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, and Iran’s guarantee that an allied organization would not carry out a similar strike from Iraqi lands.

  • Saudi Arabia and Iran will seek to exert all possible efforts to resolve conflicts in the region, particularly the conflict in Yemen, in order to secure a political solution that secures lasting peace in that country.

It remains to be seen what Washington’s response will be. MBS might have to have another gathering at the Ritz-Carlton. For argument’s sake, here’s a take that breaks with all the coverage that believes this will bring peace to ME:

Recall that KSA has recently sought more US security assurances and nuclear aid from Washington, and Riyadh is already cautioning that the deal does not mean all its issues with Tehran are resolved.

By Brett Wilkins, a staff writer. Crossposted from Common Dreams.

While advocates of peace and a multipolar world order welcomed Friday’s China-brokered agreement reestablishing diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, U.S. press, pundits, and politicians expressed what one observer called “imperial anxieties” over the deal and growing Chinese influence in a region dominated by the United States for decades. The deal struck between the two countries—which are fighting a proxy war in Yemen—to normalize relations after seven years of severance was hailed by Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, as “a victory of dialogue and peace.”

The three nations said in a joint statement that the agreement is an “affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in internal affairs.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia “also expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the leadership and government of the People’s Republic of China for hosting and sponsoring the talks, and the efforts it placed towards its success,” the statement said.

United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric thanked China for its role in the deal, asserting in a statement that “good neighborly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are essential for the stability of the Gulf region.”

Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, toldThe New York Times that “China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since [President Joe] Biden came to office.”

Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., called the deal a sign of “a battle of narratives for the future of the international order.”
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi called the agreement “the start of a new era, with China front and center.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed Aboudouh, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, another D.C. think tank, wrote that “China just left the U.S. with a bloody nose in the Gulf.”

At the Carnegie Endowment, yet another think tank located in the nation’s capital, senior fellow Aaron David Miller tweeted that the deal “boosts Beijing and legitimizes Tehran. It’s a middle finger to Biden and a practical calculation of Saudi interests”

Some observers compared U.S. and Chinese policies and actions in the Middle East.
“The U.S. is supporting one side and suppressing the other, while China is trying to make both parties move closer,” Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Times. “It is a different diplomatic paradigm.”

Murtaza Hussein, a reporter for The Intercept,tweeted that the fact that the agreement “was mediated by China as a trusted outside party shows shortcomings of belligerent U.S. approach to the region.”

While cautiously welcoming the agreement, Biden administration officials expressed skepticism that Iran would live up to its end of the bargain.

“This is not a regime that typically does honor its word, so we hope that they do,” White House National Security Council Strategic Coordinator John Kirby told reporters on Friday—apparently without any sense of irony over the fact that the United States unilaterally abrogated the Iran nuclear deal during the Trump administration.

Kirby added that the Biden administration would “like to see this war in Yemen end,” but he did not acknowledge U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in a civil war that’s directly or indirectly killed nearly 400,000 people since 2014, according to United Nations humanitarian officials.

U.S relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained during the tenure of President Joe Biden. While Biden—who once vowed to make the repressive kingdom a “pariah” over the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—has been willing to tolerate Saudi human rights abuses and war crimes, the president has expressed anger and frustration over the monarchy’s decision to reduce oil production amid soaring U.S. gasoline prices and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration is currently trying to broker a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel following the Trump administration’s mediation of the Abraham Accords, a series of diplomatic normalization agreements between Israel and erstwhile enemies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The United States, which played a key role in overthrowing Iran’s progressive government in a 1953 coup, has not had diplomatic relations with Tehran since shortly after the current Islamist regime overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy that ruled with a brutal hand for 25 years following the coup.

Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Middle East Programs for the Atlantic Council, urged the U.S. to maintain friendly relations with brutal dictatorships in the region in order to prevent Chinese hegemony there.
Panikoff wrote in an Atlantic Council analysis:

We may now be seeing the emergence of China’s political role in the region and it should be a warning to U.S. policymakers: Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbarous, but long-standing allies, and you’ll simply be leaving a vacuum for China to fill. And make no mistake, a China-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine U.S. commercial, energy, and national security.

Other observers also worried about China’s rising power in the Middle East and beyond.

New York Times China correspondent David Pierson wrote Saturday that China’s role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement shows Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “ambition of offering an alternative to a U.S.-led world order.” According to Pierson:

The vision Mr. Xi has laid out is one that wrests power from Washington in favor of multilateralism and so-called noninterference, a word that China uses to argue that nations should not meddle in each other’s internal affairs, by criticizing human rights abuses, for example.

The Saudi-Iran agreement reflects this vision. China’s engagement in the region has for years been rooted in delivering mutual economic benefits and shunning Western ideals of liberalism that have complicated Washington’s ability to expand its presence in the Gulf.

Pierson noted Xi’s Global Security Initiative, which seeks to promote “peaceful coexistence” in a multipolar world that eschews “unilateralism, bloc confrontation, and hegemonism” like U.S. invasions and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Some analysts say the initiative is essentially a bid to advance Chinese interests by displacing Washington as the world’s policeman,” wrote Pierson. “The plan calls for respect of countries’ ‘indivisible security,’ a Soviet term used to argue against U.S.-led alliances on China’s periphery.”

The U.S. has attacked, invaded, or occupied more than 20 countries since 1950. During that same period, China has invaded two countries—India and Vietnam.

“The Chinese, who for years played only a secondary role in the region, have suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player.”

New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker also published an article Saturday about how the “China-brokered deal upends Mideast diplomacy and challenges [the] U.S.”

“The Americans, who have been the central actors in the Middle East for the past three-quarters of a century, almost always the ones in the room where it happened, now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change,” fretted Baker. “The Chinese, who for years played only a secondary role in the region, have suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player.”

Some experts asserted that more peace in the Middle East would be a good thing, no matter who brokers it.

“While many in Washington will view China’s emerging role as mediator in the Middle East as a threat, the reality is that a more stable Middle East where the Iranians and Saudis aren’t at each other’s throats also benefits the United States,” tweeted Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. has adopted an approach to the region that has disabled it from becoming a credible mediator,” he lamented. “Too often, Washington takes sides in conflicts and becomes a co-belligerent—as in Yemen—which then reduces its ability to play the role of peacemaker.”

“Washington should avoid a scenario where regional players view America as an entrenched warmaker and China as a flexible peacemaker,” Parsi cautioned.

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  1. digi_owl

    More and more i get the itch that SA is in deep dodo, and MBS is trying his level best to shore up its future.

    1. OnceWereVirologist

      The oil won’t last forever and I wouldn’t, if I were them, count on living off the revenues of their US dollar denominated foreign assets when that time comes. What’s the bet that the moment Saudi oil is no longer strategically indispensable that the US government suddenly discovers that Saudi Arabia is a medieval autocracy that ought to be sanctioned in the fashion of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Saudi oil is always likely to be strategically important as its so cheap to produce and is one of the few major producing areas with slack. Recent high prices have filled their coffers (and maybe saved MBS’s neck). We are likely to see a major fall off in fracked oil outputs in the US in the near future, so for now, the Saudi’s are still an important player. I would never underestimate just how many strings the Saudi’s can pull in western capitals. They still have deep pockets and a lot of influential people on their payroll. But they are clearly re-orienting themselves in the light of China’s rise. The House of Saud has ruled a long time for a good reason. They may not be particularly nice or bright people, but they are cunning and they know how to use power.

        1. OnceWereVirologist

          I don’t think that Saudi oil is going to be strategically significant in 50 years time. We’ll either be using something different for our bulk energy needs or the deck of cards that is modern oil-based globalized industrial civilization as we know it is coming down. So in either case developing better relations with their neighbours is imho a better strategy going forward than continuing to recycle their export surpluses into the US dollar system.

  2. timbers

    US constantly shows the world it is incapable of learning (“no reverse gear”). Fresh off defeats in Afghanistan and now Ukraine while domestic US bank collapses sprout up and entire US towns are poisoned due to completely unpunished corporate greed and China steps in as World Peace Maker as Washington launches a totally unproked invasion of US troops into China’s Provence of Taiwan. The meeting of Zelensky and Xi will be interesting. Z ain’t gonna be able to spout nonsense to Xi about Russia must withdraw everywhere including Crimea and Ukraine gets to be re-armed br NATO. Zelensky better school up on acting lines that include eating a LOT of humble pie.

    1. digi_owl

      The blob will not learn as long as it can simply retreat behind its oceanic moats whenever their adventures produce too much blowback.

  3. The Rev Kev

    In the years to come, it will be found that US Embassy wires were hot with messages warning Washington about what was happening. But that Washington was still fixated on the Ukraine and pushed all other considerations aside. So it seemed that several factors came together to make this announcement possible. For one, Iran realized that Türkiye had more of a chance being accepted into the EU than they would finally get that nuclear treaty back again with all those sanctions being lifted. It was never going to happen. Ever. And as they are aligned with the east, massive new markets and opportunities await them as they turn their backs on the west.

    And the Saudis? Remember that oil price cap deal that the collective west announced that was aimed at Russia? What it amounted to was a buyer’s cartel and that the writing was on the wall that this would be imposed on the Saudis, the Gulf States and any other oil-producing nation. Probably just as the Ukraine war wraps up so the Saudis knew that they had to make a major move before this threat materialized. Another factor was that old Joe has been very antagonistic towards the Saudis and maybe trying to work behind the scenes to see that he gets the chop – literally. Old Joe only needed to be polite to the Saudis to defuse relationship tensions but Joe went into his cranky grandpa mode instead. And certainly MBS worked out that he could put far more trust in Tehran than in Washington.

    As for China, they know that the US is gunning for them and has announced it several different way. There is already a de facto economic war against China so it looks like China is stepping up to the plate to take their place in the world. I have no doubt that you had the sophisticated Russian diplomacy going on in the background but they stepped aside to let China get all the credit. They have done this before remember. The EU may be turning away from China but there are solid markets for the Chinese in the Middle East to be developed. But how did the US and the EU let it all get away from them? I was listening to an interview with ex-Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl recently and she relates how diplomacy in the EU has almost ceased to exist since she began her career. Now it is only warnings, lectures and sanctions. And the same is true in the US. And so here we are in a brave new world.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Perhaps, even without it, Biden would be the wrong man at the wrong time. Besides spouting nonsense such as “America is back,” his spastic actions towards the Plantation and simply not giving Iran a meaningless apology (apologizing for Trump) created these conditions. He would still be touting a repackaged highway bill as a grand infrastructure bill while trains stopped running on time ;)

        Even this weekend he’s gone all in on bailouts for the rich while still failing on student loan relief, even by his standards. Biden, the wrong man at the wrong time.

    1. Sgt Oddball

      – Remember that article here a few weeks back about the North/South International Trade Corridor, or whatever they’re calling it?… – As I commented back then, the implementation of that route is a *Given* and also a *Necessary* Chinese redline wrt any US/NATO efforts to put a stop to it, considering its eventual critical complementary role as the ‘shoulders/arms’ to the main BRI (east/west) Eurasian overland silk road route ‘backbone’.

      Having Iran and the Saudis make nice with each other establishes (amongst many other things, no doubt) a necessary geographical buffer westwards which would, for example, make warplane overflights originating from a certain beligerant country a good deal more fraught.

      – *Absolutely Concur* with your take on the oil price cap re: the wider OPEC+, btw. Also: – ‘Petroyuan’ *Incoming* in 3… 2… 1…

  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    Thanks, Conor Gallagher. Good to see the insightful Rania Khalek among the tweets. And Trita Parsi says it all:

    “Unfortunately, the U.S. has adopted an approach to the region that has disabled it from becoming a credible mediator,” he [Parsi] lamented. “Too often, Washington takes sides in conflicts and becomes a co-belligerent—as in Yemen—which then reduces its ability to play the role of peacemaker.”

    China is coming off this diplomatic masterstroke with the credibility to do something about Ukraine. Admittedly, I was eating a cornetto vuoto, sipping coffee, and scanning the articles in Fatto Quotidiano this morning, but I will point out what I gleaned: Xi Jinping and other Chinese dignitaries are on the move. Xi is expected in Moscow and will hold a video call with Zelenskyy after his meetings there with Putin.

    The idea of a trip to Moscow (and then Kiev) by the Pope as mediator is being floated again–rather seriously.

    I’m sure that Vicki and Antony and Joe Superannuated are having meetings with Jake about the dangers of an imminent outbreak of peace.

    I suspect that the Hersch revelations about NordStream have done their work.

    Playtime is over. (Okay, I’m being optimistic this morning.)

    Welcome to Official Day 1 of the multipolar world.

    1. Ignacio

      You are innocent when you dream, quoting here Tom Waits, so do not blame yourself for being optimist this morning. I add my appreciation here for Conor’s post and clap with the hands and ears for the title. ‘Imperial anxieties’ is an excellent qualifier for the feeling that some in Washington must be feeling so Wilkins nailed it IMO. A comment of mine talking precisely about these hegemonic anxieties in a previous Conor’s post was deleted for reasons I can understand (I am not criticizing here that decision) but I have to say this new post reinforces the idea I expressed in that comment.

      I only hope this agreement helps to end the war in Yemen not in a ceasefire but in something more stable for the region though I believe this is still a difficult achievement.

  5. David

    What a lot of the breast-beating overlooks is that China has done something which the US, by its own deliberate actions, has ruled itself out from ever doing. You cannot plausibly put yourself forward as a mediator between two countries if you regard one of them as a deadly enemy: there’s no reason why the Iranians should ever listen to the US on anything. But in China, Iran and SA you have three nations who are a great deal more pragmatic than the US, and who can see benefits from a partial rapprochement, which is, frankly, all that can be hoped for at this stage.

    But even that would do a lot to reduce tension in the region. A notable (but under-reported) example is Lebanon, where Saudi-Iranian rivalry has massively destabilised the country for a decade or more. Many of the woes of the Lebanese economy stemmed from the withdrawal of Saudi investment and Gulf tourism because of the role of Hezbollah. If that restarts, it will be an enormous boost to the economy.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve seen claims that part of the deal is a Saudi pull-out of Yemen. I assume this is the result of the Saudi’s needing a face saving way to get out of the hellhole they made for themselves without giving the Iranians an obvious win. I wonder if the Qatari’s were involved – the Saudi’s failed miserably to call the Qataris to heel and very high LNG prices must be making them even more confident. The Qataris have always had good relations with Iran, a necessity as they share the most lucrative gas field in the world.

      The interesting question of course, one we may never know the answer to, is what concessions both sides have made to get the deal done. Usually, this consists of deciding which local ally gets betrayed. It would be interesting to see if one or both have pulled back from their Lebanese or Syrian adventures.

      1. Ignacio

        Concessions are exactly the matter of which diplomacy is made of, isn’t it? The question for me is what the spirits after concessions come with. If it is regret then it wasn’t worth the effort, but if it is relief it is possible to expect the better for them and for their allies as well.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you and well said, David.

      I was recently remarking to an American friend very familiar with Iran, but not the Arab world, that the al Saud family have been around longer than the territorial entity called the USA and, from personal experience, have personal and institutional memories no longer fashionable in the west.

      As David here and Aurelien on your substack, which I urge members of the NC community to visit / subscribe, you have written about how short-term the institutional memory and short the attention span are in the west.

      The NC community may not be aware of how many members of the al Saud family and their associates have studied at Georgetown, often lodged in the Cloisters. The family may be bad, but they are not mad and aren’t going down with the USS Uncle Sam. (NB my father was doctor to the family, and professor of and advisor on public health from 1992 – 2015 and still retains links with the kingdom.)

  6. Jeff N

    European companies are selling off their US sub-subsidiaries to PE, which then makes subsidiary sales to the Gulf states possible

  7. LY

    Israel and neocons have been itching for conflict with Iran. This takes away one of the largest allies in that effort.

  8. Tom Pfotzer

    From the article:

    a China-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine U.S. commercial, energy, and national security.

    Pray tell, what U.S. commercial, energy and national security threat does this SA – Iran reduction of tensions offer?

    Don’t let this rubbish get by uncontested.

    Next: China isn’t interested in being a “power player”. They are interested in trade and rising living standards within China and across Asia, because it benefits China’s people.

    This is yet another example of projection. The West, led by the U.S. and the U.K., have the dominance mindset, and think others do, as well. They don’t.

    The “West” – that is, the manipulators behind the curtain – can’t conceive of the possibility of mutual cooperation and advancement.

    Why is that? It’s because they have nothing to offer that the rest of the world actually wants.

    Coercion is their only option. And they have systematically and continuously acted to put themselves into this indefensible, corrosive, rapidly collapsing situation.

    Lastly, don’t expect China to do any military moves in the middle East. China with its Belt-Road Initiative logistics facilities is now the world’s largest market, and it’s the market with the greatest growth potential.

    Both Iran and S.A. have a great deal more to gain by trading with China / Asia than they do by “trading” with the West. That’s the leverage, and it’s not going away.

    Trade flows tell a powerful story.

    1. hunkerdown

      You skipped the key word. When neoliberals speak of “interests,” mostly they mean access to absentee property rights, and also the place of the West as True Dispositor of all value and things. Some other Dispositor credibly “encumbering” such rights by removing them from the West’s portfolio, even those potential rights the West hasn’t even recognized or consummated yet*, serves to discount the West’s value as True Dispositor, along with every value it disposes. Worse, the True Dispositor no longer receives their True Dispositor rents. In effect, the world shrinks or collapses. Those concerned with upholding the Western world order, who see themselves as an important part of it, have existential “interests” in thwarting such an event.

      * It’s fun to think of derivatives as a representation of the gross present value of future everything-that-could-be. Although it might not be technically sound, the magnitudes seem roughly comparable.

  9. russell1200

    The U.S. usually acts as mediator between groups that are, at least in some sense, aligned with it.

    The U.S. has been Saudi’s guarantee of safety. In MBS’s mind, Biden reneged on that. So he starts trying to make friends, with people who aren’t under normal circumstances all that friendly to SA. We will see how that works out in the long run. Even in the short run, it is clear that it has caused a decline in US influence in the area.

    All of which goes toward asking the question: “Why do we want to be the mediators?” There is no inherent gain from being the mediator if it is not between people friendly toward you. The problem isn’t that we aren’t being the mediator here, the problem is that we lost an ally for not much more than virtue points.

  10. Phichibe

    I view this through one lens only: will this frustrate the military maximalists in Israel and the the Persian Gulf? Netanyahu has been playing chess (or bargaining in the souk, to use another regional analogy) to put the United States in a box wrt an attack on Iran for 20 years at least.

    FWIW I just saw Nouriel Roubini being interviewed about SVB and Roubini’s new book that talks about 10 crises he anticipates in the next decade (good book, smart man) and when asked what he thought was the next crisis, he brought up the Israel-Iran situation. He said that Iran is now at about 95% of the way to having a nuclear gadget and that in Roubini’s opinion the Israelis will attack. If SA were to normalize with Israel then that would be an absolute sign that a joint Israel-SA-UAE attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be imminent. Perversely, though, now that the Saudis have chosen to take a Chinese-facilitated ‘off-ramp’ the Israelis are going to be dusting off their plans from 2008 and before then for a circuitous route that doesn’t anticipate flying over SA.

    Just this week I went back to the NYT archives from 2008 to re-read an opinion piece by Israeli scholar Benny Morris where he declared Israel was going to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. (“Using Bombs to Stave Off War” By Benny Morris, July 18, 2008) and that it reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in a first strike.

    This is the future that Netanyahu has been trying to make a reality, including when he took the opportunity to address a sitting Congress and oppose Obama’s JCPOA Iran agreement. Netanyahu openly campaigned for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016 and 2020. Despite a strong personal dislike between him and Biden, the Israelis have gotten everything they wanted out of this administration.

    This is why this surprise development is so welcome. When the NYT reported a few days ago that MBS had told senior American officials what he wanted for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel, my heart sank because such a move would be the last piece in place before an Israeli attack on Iran, with or without the Arabs or the US.

    Although I support the existence of Israel, I balk at the price being nuclear war. Israel will have to rely on mutually assured destruction, just as we and the Soviets did.

  11. Susan the other

    Looks like we lost WW3. The war for the control of oil. And our chances of stirring up another little war around the Caspian are fading fast. The next shoe to drop will be (logically) NATO.

  12. spud

    be prepared for massive false flags, color revolutions, and religious confrontations. china should be ready to spread lots of american dollars around to smooth these over, courtesy of the same dim wits trying to contain china, which they created in the first place.

    1. Mikel

      It makes sense. They should realize that tearing each other apart is how the USA gained the post WWII dominance.

  13. William Verick

    It’s far from clear cut that China invaded India. The China-India border war was over disputed territory. The boundary dispute goes back to British imperial days and hinged, in part, on what the Qing Dynasty had agreed to with regard to Britain’s territorial claims. In China’s view, it was simply occupying territory in Xinjiang and Tibet that the Qing Dynasty had always claimed, and which the Qing had never ceded to the UK. For the definitive read on this subject, check out Neville Maxwell’s, “India’s China War,” which was based on a trove of top secret Indian government documents that were leaked to him.

  14. Glen

    Starting to hear rumors of China brokering a Russia/Ukraine peace deal.

    The Blinken – Nuland team already looks pretty bad. If China even gets R and U talking, you can stick a fork into B and N and call them done.

    1. John k

      I can’t see a deal z and p would both accept. At this point imo P wants the south coast to transnistria plus Kharkov plus a big de-mil zone, maybe de-electrified

      1. Yves Smith

        Ukraine will not accept becoming a landlocked state. And Russia still has the problem that they have no one to negotiate with. Both Blinken and Stoltenberg have said they will continue to arm Ukraine after the war is over so it can retake what it has lost. How can Russia possibly do any deal in the face of statements of intent like that?

        Even if that territorial line is what satisfies Russia because it does not want to occupy hostile territory, the conduct of the West has left it with no choice but to continue the war until it has prostrated Ukraine and drained and humiliated NATO.

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