Exclusive: Donald Trump once condemned Saudi sponsorship of terrorism but – after his lavish reception in Riyadh and Saudi promises of rich arms deals – he has fallen under the kingdom’s spell, as Daniel Lazare explains.
By Daniel Lazare
Donald Trump’s statements in response to the Qatar, Saudi and Iranian diplomatic crisis have been bizarre even by Trumpian standards. The fun started with a presidential tweet shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday in response to the decision by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to impose a state of siege on Qatar as payback for its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” it said, “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” – a favorable reference to the siege.
Then, less than two hours later, came another blast in the form of back-to-back tweets: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Trump thus sided with two U.S. allies against a third that happens to host the massive Al-Udeid airbase, home of some 10,000 American military personnel.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, the White House issued a graceless statement regarding the Islamic State suicide attack a few hours earlier on the Iranian parliament and the shrine of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini: “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times. We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
The evil they promote? This sounded awfully close to “they had it coming,” a stunningly brutal response to an incident in which 17 innocent people died. If Tehran had said anything comparable about 9/11, there is no doubt that the U.S. would have forgotten about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and invaded Iran instead.
It was Trump at his most disconcerting. But what does it all mean? One thing is that while everyone in Washington seems to think that Trump has been captured by the Russians, the real story, it suggests, is that he’s been captured by the Saudis.
Wagging the Dog
There are any number of reasons why, but the bottom line is that if Adel al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s unctuous foreign minister, says that Iran is the number one supporter of terrorism or that Qatar is a prime sponsor, then the orange-haired POTUS will scowl on cue and nod approvingly.
Henceforth, the U.S. will take its marching orders from Riyadh just as it does from Tel Aviv elsewhere in the region. Never before has the tail more firmly wagged the dog.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that Trump has fallen into the rabbit hole of U.S. anti-terrorism policy. He’s trapped in an alternative universe filled with misinformation, false assumptions, and logical absurdities. The deeper he goes, the harder it is to find a way out.
This may sound strange since, at first glance, nothing seems simpler than anti-terrorism. After all, blowing up innocent people or slashing them to death on crowded city streets is something that all decent people abhor, so what could be more obvious than just saying no?
But when you probe a little more deeply, the structure proves surprisingly rickety. Yes, yes, bombing a rock concert is vicious beyond words. But what about firebombing an entire city, something the RAF did with regularity in World War II? Is that any better – and if so, why?
Osama bin Laden was, without doubt, a monster. But what about Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, the man in charge of the RAF raids, who once boasted, “I kill thousands of people every night”? [See Stephen A. Garrett, “Terror Bombings of German Cities in World War II,” in Igor Primoratz, ed., Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues (Houndsmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 156.]
Is he a monster too? If your answer is no because he was fighting the Nazis, then you’ve fallen prey to “consequentialism,” the notion that the morality of any such act is impossible to assess without attention to the final goal. If incinerating women and children is what it takes to defeat Hitler, then we must all put our shoulder to the wheel, or so the consequentialists tell us.
Yet countless politicians have warned against such relativist thinking since 9/11 on the grounds that terrorism can never be justified regardless of its motivation because the act is uniquely evil and only evil people do it. Of course, this absolutism ignores the moral ambiguities of warfare throughout history. But it also locks Americans into a logical conundrum from which there is no escape.
Terrorists are evil-doers, and evil-doers are terrorists. If America decides that someone is evil, then the T-word almost inevitably follows. Since terrorism is impossible to define in a way acceptable to all, the United States, the global sovereign, gets to define it in as self-serving a manner as it wishes.
Once upon a time, Trump seemed to realize, in a dim way, that something was amiss. In 2011, he described Saudi Arabia as “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism” and said 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.”[Donald J. Trump, Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2011), p. 20.]
The broad-brush word “terrorism” may have made no more sense in this instance than it did in any other. But at least Trump grasped that the Saudis were the arsonist rather than the firefighter and that it was nonsense to try to cover that reality up.
On the campaign trail, Trump once declared that the Saudis “blew up the World Trade Center,” and said that American firepower was the only thing saving them from disaster. “If it weren’t for us, they wouldn’t be here,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They wouldn’t exist.”
All of which was true. But that was before the Saudis agreed to purchase $110 billion in U.S. military hardware and projected a five-story image of his face on the side of the local Ritz-Carlton during his visit last month to Riyadh. So, in Trump’s mind, the Saudis were transformed. Instead of bad guys, they were now good.
And since they were good, they could no longer be terrorists or sponsors of terrorism. Indeed, they were now so good that they were in a position to say who the real sponsors of terrorism were. When they pointed at Qatar, Trump instantly agreed.
Of course, Qatar’s role as a funder of Al Qaeda and ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh) is also well known, as is the UAE’s. In mid-2014, Hillary Clinton wrote in an email made public by Wikileaks that “Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” while Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at Harvard a couple of months later 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 53:35.)
Yet, U.S. officials continued to provide cover for these funders, as Donald Trump eventually did as well.
“Our relationship is extremely good,” Trump told the press as he sat down with Qatari Emir Hamad al-Thani in Riyadh on May 21. “We have some very serious discussions right now going on, and one of the things that we will discuss is the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody makes it like the United States. And for us that means jobs, and it also means, frankly, great security back there [i.e. in Qatar], which we want.”
In other words, Qatar was a friend just a couple of weeks ago. But since the emirate (population 313,000 not counting foreign workers) is in no position to buy as many “beautiful” weapons as the Saudis (population 33 million), it can’t be as good a friend and thus wound up on the defensive when the Saudis accused it of aiding and abetting the enemy.
As for Iran, this is where U.S. officials make the “terrorism” word mean whatever they want. In February, Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world” while Trump followed up on May 21 with the charge that it “funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”
This was standing truth on its head since the Saudis, the prime source of sectarianism in the Middle East, ban all religions other than Islam, routinely arrest Christians for the “crime” of praying and possessing Bibles, and have imposed a state of siege on Shi‘ites in their own Eastern Province.
This is not to say that Iran is not also guilty of religious discrimination. But while its treatment of Bahais is despicable, at least it allows Christian churches and Sunni mosques to operate openly while, according to the U.S. State Department, there is “little interference with Jewish religious practices.” While Tehran has 13 active synagogues, Riyadh, needless to say, has none. Iran’s sins, in other words, are of a different order of magnitude than those of its rival across the Strait of Hormuz.
But if Saudi Arabia is now “good” and therefore “anti-terrorist,” then its enemy, Iran, must be a terrorist state par excellence and very, very evil. And, thus, Shi’ite-ruled Iran must be responsible for ISIS even though ISIS views Shi‘ites with the same genocidal fury as state-salaried Wahhabist mullahs do in Riyadh.
By looking at terrorism through this peculiar prism, you can understand Trump’s statement that Iran had it coming. It’s at fault even if it’s the victim.
Needless to say, Iran sees things differently. Turning tables on the U.S., Mohammad Hossein Nejat, deputy head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence branch, charged that the incident was obviously the fault of America and the Saudis because it occurred just a couple of weeks after Trump’s sit-down with the royal family in Riyadh.
“For these two actions to happen … after this meeting means that the U.S. and Saudi regimes had ordered their stooges to do,” he said according to the Fars news agency.
Unfortunately, Nejat provided no evidence, so we have no idea whether what he’s saying is true or just speculation. But since ISIS is plainly a Saudi asset, it’s hardly implausible that a Saudi official might have telephoned a friend in Islamic State to let him now that such an operation would not be viewed with disfavor.
Or perhaps ISIS reached the same conclusion on its own after reading Trump’s Riyadh speech on the Internet. Regardless, it’s an example of how America’s “Alice in Wonderland” war on terrorism is fanning the flames of sectarianism. The slaughter in Tehran, like that in Manchester and London, is a sign of a things to come.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).