Exclusive: In his Mideast trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, President Trump sought some political safe harbor by tacking toward neocon orthodoxy and jettisoning his campaign promises of a more rational strategy, writes Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
With astounding precision, Donald Trump zeroed in on the worst possible Middle East policy option in his recent trip to Saudi Arabia and made it his own. He rebuffed the efforts of Iran’s newly elected moderate government to open up communications with the West and instead deepened America’s alliances with decrepit autocratic regimes across the Persian Gulf.
Turning up his nose at Iran — a rising young power — he embraced Saudi Arabia, which is plainly on its last legs. It was a remarkable display — rather like visiting a butcher shop and passing up a fresh steak for one that’s rancid and smelly and buzzing with flies.
Saudi Arabia is not just any tired dictatorship with an abysmal human-rights record but one of the most spectacularly dysfunctional societies in history. It takes in half a billion dollars a day in oil revenue, yet is so profligate that it could run out of money in half a decade. It sits atop 18 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, yet is so wasteful that, at current rates, it will become a net importer by the year 2030.
Its king travels with a thousand-person retinue wherever he goes while his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, plunked down $550 million not long ago when a 440-foot yacht caught his eye in the south of France. Yet this pair of royal kleptocrats dares preach austerity at a time when as much as 25 percent of the population lives on less than $17 a day in trash-strewn Third World slums.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s appetite for high-tech weaponry is such that in 2015 it became the largest arms importer in the world. Yet its military is so inept that it is unable to subdue ragtag Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen or even stop them from raiding deep inside Saudi territory and launching regular missile attacks.
The kingdom accuses Iran of sectarianism yet bans all religions other than Islam, arrests Christians for the “crime” of praying and possessing Bibles, equates atheism with terrorism, and has imposed a state of siege on Shi‘ite Muslims in its own Eastern Province. Although a bit restrained of late, its religious police are notorious for roaming the shopping malls and striking out with canes at anyone violating shari‘a law.
As the English novelist Hilary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) recalled of the four years she spent in the kingdom with her geologist husband, it was impossible to know what might arouse their ire: “it might be the flashing denim legs of a Filipina girl revealed for a second beneath an abaya gone adrift, or it might be the plate-glass shop front of a business that, as the evening prayer call spiraled through the damp air-conditioned halls, had failed to slam down its metal shutters fast enough. What were the rules? No one knew.”
Saudi Arabia also denounces terrorism at every turn even though its funding groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (also known as ISIL and Islamic State) is an open secret. In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained in a diplomatic memo made public by Wikileaks that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In September 2014, she observed that “Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
A few days later, Vice President Joe Biden told a Harvard audience that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. … were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (Quote starts at 53:30.)
Arming the Saudis
Rather than fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Saudis give them money so that they can wage jihad on religious minorities. Yet this is the country that Trump now calls upon to “drive out the terrorists and extremists,” which is as ludicrous as relying on the KKK to drive out racism. It’s also the country that he hopes will serve as the cornerstone of an “Arab NATO” so that he can sell it more jet fighters and Blackhawk helicopters.
But the Saudi military is already top-heavy with such gear while at the same time so short of infantry that it relies on ill-trained Sudanese mercenaries, scores of whom were reportedly killed in a recent battle in the Red Sea province of Midi in Yemen’s north. This is not surprising since no Saudi in his right mind wants to serve as a foot soldier so that the deputy crown prince can buy another yacht. But more such purchases will only add to the military imbalance while adding more fuel to the broader Middle East conflagration.
So how did this god-awful marriage come about? Is it all Trump’s fault? Or have others contributed to the mess? The answer, of course, is the latter.
Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has contributed to the catastrophe. Roosevelt declared Saudi Arabia a U.S. protectorate while Dwight Eisenhower got it into his head that a corrupt desert monarchy would somehow be useful in the fight against Communism. Worried that it might come under Soviet influence, Jimmy Carter commenced a military buildup in the Persian Gulf that, according to a 2009 Princeton University study, has now surpassed the $10-trillion mark.
Ronald Reagan relied on the Saudis to finance arms to the Nicaraguan Contras and to Jonas Savimbi’s pro-apartheid guerrillas in Angola. George H.W. Bush launched a major war to save the Saudis from the evil Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush and Barack Obama covered up the Saudi role in 9/11, while Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged them and other Gulf monarchies to fund anti-government rebels in Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring. Both Libya and Syria fell to ruin as a consequence as hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to pro-Al Qaeda forces and the flames of Wahhabist terrorism spread ever wider.
Indeed, Donald Trump for a while seemed to augur something different. Rather than praising the kingdom, he denounced it in 2011 as “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism” and asserted, not inaccurately, that it was using “our petro dollars – our very own money – to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.” Once on the campaign trail, he upped the ante by declaring that the Saudis “blew up the World Trade Center” and threatened to block their oil if they didn’t do more to fight ISIS.
Even more disconcertingly – at least to Washington’s endlessly bellicose foreign-policy establishment – Trump dismissed the cherished U.S.-Saudi-neoconservative goal of overthrowing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, arguing that the U.S. should concentrate on fighting ISIS instead.
“I don’t like Assad at all,” Trump declared in his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. “But Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, and Iran is killing ISIS.” If killing ISIS was the main goal, then it followed that checking the power of the other three could be safely put off to another day.
Prioritizing in this way made a modicum of sense. But it went counter to Official Washington’s self-serving orthodoxy that Assad was somehow in league with the terrorists and that weakening one would undermine the other. Trump’s “Assad is killing ISIS” line thus triggered a firestorm of protest from those “in the know.” Clinton shook her head sadly at Trump’s naiveté while the mainstream U.S. media agreed that Trump didn’t know what he was talking about.
CNN, a division of Time Warner, said the claim was false because “there has been no visible effort by Assad regime forces to go after ISIS.” The Huffington Post, owned by Verizon Communications, wrote that Syria’s “primary focus” was not to go after ISIS, but “to wipe out less radical Syrian rebel groups that pose a larger challenge to Assad because they could be a popular, internationally acceptable alternative to him.”
In other words, although it might look to an objective observer that Assad was fighting ISIS, the Washington groupthink held that he really wasn’t; he was somehow on ISIS’s side. Or so such mainstream outlets assured us.
But it was nonsense as IHS Markit, a London analytics firm with extensive aerospace and defense experience, made clear in a subsequent report. Beginning in April 2016, its study of actual field conditions in Syria found that government forces engaged Islamic State in battle two and a half times as often as U.S.-backed forces did. Damascus, for all its faults, was the one doing the heavy lifting, not the United States and its allies.
“Any further reduction in the capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces,” IHS Markit observed, “would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus.”
Added a Middle East analyst named Columb Strack: “It is an inconvenient reality that any US action taken to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.”
Overthrowing Assad, in other words, means clearing a path for ISIS straight through to the presidential palace. This reality is obvious. Yet it is a reality that Official Washington prefers to ignore so it can continue selling Saudi Arabia more military goods.
As a result, Democrats, neocons and the liberal media opened up with a rhetorical artillery barrage when it became apparent that America had someone in the White House who might think differently. Trump, they cried, was a “Siberian candidate”! He was a Kremlin stooge!
The fact that Trump questioned whether overthrowing Assad should be the first priority of the U.S. strategy in Syria was proof that he was in league with Vladimir Putin! Reeling from the onslaught, Trump began to realize that he was in a no-win situation, just as Obama had eight years earlier when he gave Hillary Clinton and her neocon allies control of the State Department.
Bucking Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, a.k.a. “The Blob,” was a losing proposition. The neocons were too powerful. Resistance was pointless. So Trump surrendered to the “truisms” of Official Washington’s foreign-policy elite regarding the Middle East conflicts: Saudi Arabia and its allies: good; Russia, Syria, and Iran: baaaad.
Shoring up his right flank, Trump brought on board standard-issue hawks like Secretary of Defense James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He launched a raid inside Yemen and bombed a Syrian military air base, earning rave reviews from the press. He invited Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman to a lavish White House lunch and then flew to Riyadh to cozy up with his dad, King Salman. Washington Officialdom was pleased. So was Israel.
Trump’s discordant comments on the campaign trail were forgotten as U.S.-Saudi relations settled back into their well-worn groove. The upshot was a record $110-billion arms deal, a sword dance, ritualistic denunciations of terrorists – Saudi-speak for anyone opposed to the royal family – and a good deal of incendiary rhetoric aimed at Tehran.
Where to Now?
The big question now is whether all this tough talk leads to something more substantial. If so, two flashpoints bear watching. One is the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s chief entry point for humanitarian aid and, according to the Saudis, for Iranian military aid to the Houthis. For months, the kingdom has been pushing for an all-out effort to wrest the port away from Houthi control, and the great danger now is that Trump, swept along by his own rhetoric, will go along.
But a frontal assault on a city of more than 300,000 is no easy matter. To the contrary, it would be a major undertaking requiring not only U.S. air and naval support but probably U.S. ground troops as well.
As the rightwing Jamestown Foundation noted: “Even with US assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military. The most capable units of what was the Yemeni Army and the Houthis themselves will inflict heavy losses on those forces that try to take Hodeidah and then, if necessary, move up into the mountains.”
It’s hard to imagine even Trump blundering into such a trap. This is why the second flashpoint is even more worrisome. Located some 1,800 miles to the north near the desert town of Al-Tanf, it is where the Baghdad-Damascus highway, a crucial supply route, crosses into Syria from Iraq. It is also where U.S. jets struck a pro-Syrian government convoy on May 18 as it neared a U.S.-British military outpost. It is an area where all sides – the Syrian army, Iraqi Shi‘ite militias, Iranian-backed forces plus U.S., U.K., and even Norwegian troops – are now beefing up their forces. With Trump’s “Arab NATO” vowing to contribute 34,000 troops to the struggle against both ISIS and Iran, the question is whether the U.S. and Saudis will push matters to the brink by attempting to sever a key Syrian supply link to the outside world.
If so, the upshot could well be a firefight that triggers a wider war. That will make the neocons and their Saudi allies very happy and no doubt please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well. But it will scare the hell out of everybody else.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).