“Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing With Saudi Arabia”, it says at the top of an official “Statements and Releases” memo, which includes a helpful sub-heading setting out the general category of “Foreign Policy”. At the very top is a small graphic image of the White House, just to make sure you know from whence it issued. There are gold stars and everything. It certainly presents as a Very Serious and Completely Official Statement of Policy, the kind of thing that gets released after many rounds of review, interdepartmental consultation, nuanced drafting and redrafting, and plenty of careful editing.
Or maybe not so much.
Before the main text, we see the Donald’s appropriated pre-war, Nazi-sympathizing, isolationist slogan “America First!”, in italics, with an exclamation point. Then it begins, with the illuminating thought that “The world is a very dangerous place!” With an exclamation point: “dangerous!”.
The tone thus set, we’re off to the rambling races.
Not to boast, but I’ve studied U.S. foreign policy all my adult life, both formally, via seven years of post-secondary education culminating in a Masters degree in international relations, and privately, as an avid observer determined to keep abreast of what’s going on. I’ve seen a lot of things emerge from the American policy community, and in the course of my formal and informal studies I’ve absorbed a great many official pronouncements and statements of principle, going back as far as the Monroe Doctrine, and farther still; and no word of a lie, I’ve never seen anything quite like the text that follows that excited opening sentence. It’s quite the most extraordinary expression of official policy I’ve ever encountered.
There’s really no way to do it justice without setting it out in full. Let’s do that, then, but in digestible chunks, beneath which I’ll add whatever thoughts I can muster on what it means, and what larger implications therefore flow.
So, let’s take it from the top:
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
So we know right away: this is all about Iran. Not poor, murdered Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khoshoggi, not the grievances of Turkey, where the murder occurred, not the culpability of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ordered Khoshoggi killed, but Iran. That’s the big picture. Trump, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, et.al. are playing a 21st Century version of the old imperial Great Game, this time a little farther to the west in Asia Minor, allying with the Saudis on the one hand and Netanyahu’s Israel on the other to beat back the power and influence of Iran. Miserable, hated Iran, the purported source of almost all evil in the Middle East.
Just a few quibbles here. Iran is not, in fact, “responsible for a bloody proxy war in Yemen”. The terrible civil war in Yemen has entirely indigenous roots, going back more than a decade, and was set to explode without Iran’s or anybody else’s help. Like America, Iran has a favourite in the conflict, and like America, but to a lesser degree, Iran is supporting its side. This is to be expected. What’s elevated the conflict to something truly awful, and potentially the greatest humanitarian crisis extant, is the brutal intervention of the Saudis, invading on the ground and pummelling all and sundry from the air with American-made munitions dropped from superb American fighter jets. Especially their souped-up F-15s. The Saudis do love their Strike Eagles.
Farther afield, Iran is certainly the backer of Hezbollah, and does indeed do much to prop up Syria’s Assad, but as for it being “the world’s greatest sponsor of terror”, well, let’s just say there’s plenty of other players in that arena, Saudi Arabia not least among them. Over there, terror is just state policy pursued by other means. Iran’s a very bad actor, to be sure, but there aren’t a lot of good ones in that neck of the woods, and America’s Saudi allies certainly don’t make the cut.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
Uh-huh. But Iran isn’t there, not directly, not like the Saudis are, and it would therefore be difficult to establish that the Iranians had “left”, short of being able to prove somehow that Iran provides no more support, maintains no further contacts, and wields no further influence, which isn’t likely. It’s also more than improbable that the Saudis would then stop picking sides and begin flowing aid to all who needed it. The added thought that the Saudis are devoting billions to combat radical Islam is almost too risible to bear. Actually, Saudi money has for many years fostered extremists and fundamentalism all over the Middle East and beyond.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
Where to start? First, your trip was heavily negotiated? You mean you did some negotiating on the trip? O.K., but not really though, right? What you did was some selling, and in fact merely confirmed a bunch of deals already inked under Obama.
Then there’s all the bogus employment and financial stats. Hundreds of thousands of jobs!!?? $450 billion!!?? Oh, please. The entire US defence industry only employs about 325,000 people, and the total value of firm commitments entered into thus far by Saudi Arabia comes to about $14.5 billion, which is reckoned to secure – secure, mind you, not create – about 17,500 industry jobs. The claim that there’s $110 billion worth of arms purchases in the works is completely misleading, based on nothing more than a hopeful projection of possible future purchases, by no means agreed upon yet, perhaps to be made over decades to come. The $450 billion figure is straight out of thin air, pure fantasy. Trump literally just made it up.
And no, Saudi Arabia’s Western-trained, Western-equipped military could not simply switch to Russian and Chinese weapons and systems if America declined to sell quite so many arms to the Kingdom. Integrating a different country’s equipment into a logistics and training infrastructure designed for American weapons would require the arduous conversion of so many supply chains and other support systems that it would be close to impossible, at least over the short run. Not to clutter the commentary with too many real-world facts, but you cannot, for example, simply drop Russian munitions from a U.S. aircraft – “weapons integration” is one of the most complex aspects of aircraft armament. In any case, the Saudis would be loth to buy Russian and Chinese weapons, since they just aren’t as good, and wouldn’t give them the advantage they crave over other Gulf states, or parity with Israel. The Saudis are particularly keen to out-gun Iran, which is stuck with such merchandise.
More to the point, this amounts to a statement that the U.S. will abandon any principled stand it might take, even with respect to the brutal murder of Green Card holding resident American journalists (and perhaps full citizens?), provided the price is right. Money talks, baby. All other priorities are secondary. Just buy our shit, and you can do what you want, O.K.? In effect, Trump has just announced that America stands for nothing, and its soul is for sale.
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
Oh dear, oh dear. The U.S. has taken strong action, has it? How? By freezing some of the bank accounts held by some of the perps? By watching from the sidelines while the Crown Prince rounds up some of the guys who murdered Khoshoggi on his orders, so he can scape-goat the heads right off of their shoulders? Perhaps actual “strong action” might involve doing something to perturb the Crown Prince himself, like, say, approaching his Kingly father and suggesting that the child needs to have his wings clipped, and the United States would in future be pleased to deal with some other Royal Relative? Something like that?
Oh, and representatives of the Saudis say poor Khashoggi was an enemy of the state? Do they now? A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was he? Bullshit. A pure smear, and no more persuasive than all of Trump’s other “some people are saying” fabrications, which he trots out whenever he wishes he had the factual basis to assert any given falsehood at any given moment. Dreadful. Plus, the Crown Prince denies all involvement – oh, O.K. then, good enough. Just like Putin denied any meddling in the 2016 election. Listen, as long as the foreign autocrat says he’s lily-white, who are we to doubt it? I know, I know, American intelligence agencies have provided one of their so-called “high confidence” assessments, asserting that MBS personally orchestrated the whole murder thing, but what do they know? Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
God save us. Just dwell on that for a second. This is the President speaking, not Sammy the Bull. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t! Exclamation point. I guess that’s that then. Whaddayagonna do, right? It is what it is, am I right? Anyway, there was nothing nobody could do, it was among the Saudis, it was real Kingdom shit, you know? It happens. You move on. Anyway relax, nobody got killed who wasn’t supposed to.
That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
There it is again, the real point: we’ve got bigger fish to fry than the murder of journalists for crying out loud, we’re in this thing with Israel and the Saudis to have a go at Iran, OK? Keep your eyes on the ball, people! This is big geopolitics we’re playing here! It’s major! You don’t upset the apple cart on something this important over some lousy Washington Post reporter getting his, don’t you understand?
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!
Oh, so it’s your persuasion and their good will, not global market forces, that have kept the price of oil down? I stand corrected – hey, wait, I just saw a guy on MSNBC who thinks that maybe there’s a quid pro quo going on here, in which you let MBS skate on murder, and he relaxes Saudi attempts to control the supply and price of oil, is there anything to that? I’m still struggling a bit to understand how letting the Saudis murder American journalists on foreign soil keeps anybody safe, but I guess that’s all part of the Great Game, and too subtle for the likes of me to grasp.
Sigh. This is a simply an awful, lamentable document. It’s not so much that America is running an occasionally unprincipled foreign policy – that’s pretty much par for the course, for America and everybody else, we’re being honest – it’s that the United States would straight-up announce a complete lack of principles as official doctrine. This to avoid irritating the Saudis, and losing their custom. It’s just so weak. It casts America as some sort of Saudi water carrier, eager only for their bounteous cash, willing to let them get away with anything so long as they spread their filthy lucre America’s way – and anyway it’s not like they could do much to influence the machinations in Riyadh, right? It portrays the United States as needing to placate them. They step way out of line, and America hustles to make amends. It tells dictators everywhere that nothing’s out of bounds so long as there’s something in it for the U.S., you know, something really valuable. Play your cards right, and the world’s only superpower will actually start sucking up!
Truly, it’s pathetic.
One wonders how this document made it through the process and got released. Parts of it are written in language far too sophisticated for Trump, and parts of it are pure Donald, practically tweets, with their sprinkling of exclamation points, and the simpleton logic and crude verbal sleight-of-hand so characteristic of the President. I suspect he was presented with a more polished draft – you can hear a lot of John Bolton in the text – marked it up, and then had it sent out without further review. Thus we end up with this appalling hash of a statement, one of the weirdest and most depressing articulations of foreign policy – if you could call it that – ever to see the light of day.
Worse, it leaves one with the lingering suspicion that there’s more to this anti-Iranian business than we’ve yet to fully grasp. Is Trump planning on isolating and hobbling Iran – or attacking it? Is yet another useless, costly, enervating Middle Eastern war in the offing? Is that why it’s so vital to avoid ruffling Saudi feathers?
Nah. I’m just letting my imagination run rampant.